When there is a discussion about the elite tight ends in the NFL, the usual suspects get plenty of mention – Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten. They provide the Wow Factor and consistently get the job done for their respective offenses. One name that is currently missing from that list likely won't be missing for much longer. In his third season, Kyle Rudolph may be on the cusp of the big time.
What separates good tight ends from great tight ends is making the tough catch and the ability to stretch a defense and make big plays. While Rudolph and Christian Ponder have yet to develop a deep downfield rapport, Rudolph has become Ponder's security blanket in the red zone – the area of the field inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
The level of success that Ponder and Rudolph have enjoyed in the red zone is uncanny – while still remaining largely unnoticed. Last season, only one NFL tight end was targeted more in the red zone than Rudolph's 17 – Pittsburgh's Heath Miller (20). Not too shabby. But sometimes No. 2 just isn't high enough.
Who led NFL tight ends last season in red zone receptions?
Rudolph with 14.
Who led the tight ends in receiving yards in the red zone?
Rudolph with 95.
Who led NFL tight ends in red zone touchdowns?
If you're sensing a trend, you're right. It was Rudolph with nine.
What makes his achievement even more impressive is that he is in a class by himself over the two years of his fledgling NFL career.
In two seasons, Vikings quarterbacks have thrown to Rudolph 23 times in the red zone. He has caught 20 of them – a whopping 87 percent of those throws. They weren't always accurate. They weren't always easy. But he made them.
For the purpose of comparison, in that same span, Gates has caught 67 percent of red zone passes thrown his way. Gronkowski has caught 65 percent. Gonzalez has caught 63 percent. Miller has caught 60 percent. Graham has caught 53 percent. Witten has caught 53 percent.
If the key to success for an NFL player is to be clutch at the most critical times, Rudolph has passed the first tests of his NFL career with flying colors. When it comes to tight ends, red zone production is as vital as any stat that defines the position. They're the guys going over the middle against defenses that are packed in by the back line of the end zone. They're open to highlight-film hits from large defenders with bad intentions closing in on them. In NFL business terms, the red zone and the end zone are where NFL tight ends make their money. It's the Green Zone for them. Catch it and they will pay.
In two years, Rudolph has already moved himself up the charts in several categories, but perhaps the category that is the most likely to get an NFL tight end in his mid-20s a 10-figure second contract – red zone reliability – is the one Rudolph excels at better than any tight end in the league.
Let the contract extension talks begin.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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