EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Kyle Rudolph has some of the surest hands in the NFL, with a 6-foot-6, 260-pound frame fit for the type of tight end who can be one of his team's best passing targets.
As long as he plays for the Minnesota Vikings, though, his potential is probably not on track to become the next Tony Gonzalez. No matter how much ability Rudolph has as a receiver, run blocking must be an equally important part of his skill set.
"There aren't very many guys in our game anymore who are doing the run blocking and the pass catching," Rudolph said. "You see a lot of guys who have giant pass catching numbers but aren't expected a lot of in the run game, and vice versa. ... Hey, you can do both if you work at it."
Only Rob Gronkowski had more touchdown receptions, 11 for New England, last year among tight ends than Rudolph, who matched Jimmy Graham of New Orleans with nine. Rudolph was named to the Pro Bowl squad as an injury replacement for Gonzalez, the 37-year-old wonder for Atlanta. Gonzalez led the redefinition of the position over the last decade or so and served as a model for a teenage Rudolph growing up in Cincinnati.
Partly due to the struggles quarterback Christian Ponder endured through the middle of the season, Rudolph averaged barely 30 yards per game and never surpassed 67. Even if Ponder gets a lot better this year, though, Adrian Peterson isn't suddenly going to stop running the ball, barring injury. Even when Ponder drops back to pass, there will be a large dose of short and intermediate throws on display.
Take the bubble screen that Percy Harvin ran so effectively last season that Greg Jennings will now be featured in. Rudolph lines up outside of Jennings and has the most important job on the play, having to stay square in front of the defender he is trying to block in order to give the intended receiver the option of darting to either side.
"They expect a lot out of us," Rudolph said.
That's one reason why he won't, publicly at least, declare a number of touchdowns or yards for the year as a goal.
"The balls are going to come," Rudolph said. "In this offense when plays are going to be made, they're going to be there. For me it's very important to feel like I'm all square in the run game, have my technique, make sure my pad level is down, things like that."
That is technical talk, but words the Vikings want to hear. Coach Leslie Frazier, who mentioned Rudolph's name unprompted when discussing players he is counting on for greater leadership, has raved more than once this month about the confidence he has seen from the lanky third-year guy out of Notre Dame.
"He's going to be a good player for us this season, without question," Frazier said.
The Pro Bowl, that meaningless and increasingly controversial exhibition, was the source of much of this development for Rudolph. Spending a week around Dallas star Jason Witten was nothing but beneficial, whether in meetings, practices or brain-picking time between activities.
"I'd be lucky to have the career that he's had. He's had an unbelievable run," Rudolph said. "He and Tony Gonzalez are two guys who, when I was 14 years old and started playing the tight end position, were at the top of the game.
"I don't want to make them feel old, because I was 14 and they're still at the top of the game, but those are guys I try to model my game after."
Teammate John Carlson is older than Rudolph but still a bit in awe of his fellow former Fighting Irish tight end.
"He's unbelievably gifted, but he doesn't just rest on being gifted. He works at it. To be his size and to be as athletic and mobile as he is, it's crazy," Carlson said. "And we all know what he can do in the passing game, but he's a great run blocker, too. He's truly a complete tight end."
NOTES: WR Jarius Wright has passed the required post-concussion tests, but as a precaution he won't travel to San Francisco for Sunday's game. ... Frazier said the starters will play the entire first half against the 49ers, but Peterson might be pulled before that.
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