EAGAN, Minn. -- Tight ends have long been a pivotal part of the passing game for teams coached by Gary Kubiak. In 21 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator (1995-2015), Kubiak’s tight ends received an average of 23 percent of targets per season.
When the Minnesota Vikings hired Kubiak as an offensive advisor/assistant head coach, there was an expectation that he and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski would build a scheme predicated off heavy usage of the position.
Among the key figures was Kyle Rudolph, the ninth-year veteran who built a reputation as a reliable pass-catching threat, particularly in the red zone. From 2011-18, Rudolph averaged 48 catches and 473 yards per season and totaled 41 touchdowns.
So when Rudolph, 29, agreed to a four-year, $36 million (with $9.25 guaranteed) contract extension in June after weeks of deliberations, the future seemed to indicate a larger role for him.
Expectations, though, are different than reality.
"I think I was with the majority in expecting more opportunities for the tight end room, but that’s out of my control," Rudolph said. "That’s on Kevin."
Rudolph has yet to reach the end zone in six games, and has just nine receptions for 72 yards.
He has an expensive price tag, particularly for a player whose primary role so far has been in protection. Rudolph leads all tight ends with 175 run-blocking snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, and is tied for second in pass-blocking production (40 snaps).
The role feels somewhat foreign for Rudolph, and that’s OK. His contributions as a blocker -- an area where he’s been knocked before -- haven’t gone unnoticed.
"This is his best year, by far," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "I think he’s put a lot of emphasis in it. I know that he is working hard at it and that this is the best job that he’s done. I feel like knowing with (Dalvin) Cook back there and (Alexander) Mattison that we have a chance to gain some big yards in the running game. He’s really taken a lot of effort and put it into it."
While the overall target share is down for Minnesota’s tight ends (16 catches for 165 yards between Rudolph and rookie Irv Smith Jr.), it doesn’t mean the position is obsolete in this offense.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Vikings have taken 140 snaps with two tight ends on the field, which is the second-most in the NFL behind the Philadelphia Eagles (143). The percentage of plays (39) Minnesota has run out of 12 and 22 personnel leads the NFL.
This role might be unfamiliar for Rudolph but provides increased motivation.
"For me it’s a lot of fun because no one thinks I can block, so to go out there, to not give up a sack to Khalil Mack, and block Leonard Floyd, Clelin Farrell, no one expects me to do that. Everyone knows I can run around and catch balls," Rudolph said.
When the Vikings played the Detroit Lions, their upcoming opponent, in Week 16 last season, Rudolph notched his third career 100-yard receiving game along with two touchdowns.
While limited opportunities have come Rudolph’s way, often in the form of tight end screens, Stefanksi believes that his role could eventually shift back to what he’s used to.
"I think sample size is hard, and you’ve seen in the last two ballgames how things start to even out. I hate to keep going back, but we had two ballgames where we were ahead and we just kept running it, so I think the pendulum will swing a little bit on that stuff."
For now, Rudolph remains committed to his blocking role. It feels unconventional, but the areas of the game he’s affecting, particularly as a run blocker, lead the way for the Vikings to have the No. 3 rushing offense.
"You got Kyle making big blocks, Conk (Tyler Conklin), Irv, all those guys, CJ (Ham) going down there and making some big blocks at the tight end position," Cook said. "So it’s a collective group that’s just going in there and not worrying about catching balls and stat lines, so you got to tip their hats off to those guys and sticking their hand in there and blocking.’’