EAGAN, Minn. -- Two months ago, at the start of the Minnesota Vikings' offseason program, Kyle Rudolph walked into TCO Performance Center bearing the weight of his own expectations entering his ninth year in the NFL.
He wore his feelings on his chest, donning a white hoodie with the phrase “Lots of Game Left” as he participated in voluntary workouts while uncertainty swirled around the status of his contract and his future in Minnesota.
Ahead of mandatory minicamp, the Vikings came back at Rudolph with a message just as poignant: The pursuit of our first Lombardi Trophy cannot happen without you.
The four-year, $36 million contract extension Rudolph signed on Tuesday is set to keep him in Minnesota through the 2023 season. The veteran tight end got what he wanted -- to remain in the place where he started his career in 2011 on a deal in which he doesn’t feel like he’s shortchanging himself ($9 million of Rudolph’s new contract is fully guaranteed, a source told ESPN). The Vikings made out well on their end, too, not having to overpay or lock themselves long term into a player approaching the later years of his prime, with Rudolph’s extension also expected to free up $4 million in cap space, according to NFL Network.
The laborious work it took for both sides to get here finally paid off. Finding a way to keep Rudolph on this offense exemplifies a mentality that the Vikings are all-in for the 2019 season, backed by the support of an ownership group willing to pull out all the stops to make it happen.
“It certainly embodies the win-now mentality,” Rudolph said. “But to me, it just embodies how much they (the Wilf family) care about winning, period. They came to this organization a little over 12 years ago with one goal and that was to win a championship. All the stuff that they’ve done since is falling in place with that goal. Certainly we want to win now -- that’s not going to change. But with their leadership, they’re providing us with every resource imaginable to win now, but also to win for a long time.”
Rudolph is the third core veteran the Vikings retained this offseason when financial limitations felt like they would lead to dead ends. Keeping defensive end Everson Griffen, linebacker Anthony Barr and now Rudolph shows the belief this franchise has that it can get back to where it was in 2017, when this team reached its highest heights under this ownership, front office and coaching staff, standing one win away from a trip to the Super Bowl.
These moves support the notion that this team feels it can get back to the NFC Championship Game with the group that got it there two years ago. The next question to be answered and ultimately judged the harshest is whether the same group that lost 38-7 to eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia can win the thing this time around.
What the Vikings want to do offensively cannot happen without Rudolph on the roster. After the Vikings drafted Irv Smith Jr. with the 50th overall pick, general manager Rick Spielman noted how the use of multiple tight end sets can help this offense become harder to defend. Smith and Rudolph are completely different; one does not make the other obsolete. Keeping both of them, especially with the roles tight ends have played in Gary Kubiak’s offenses before and the concepts that coordinator Kevin Stefanski has voiced a desire to employ regularly, was critical for the success of this unit.
If the Vikings weren’t serious about the way they view Rudolph’s role as a necessary component to the success of this offense, they might have taken a gamble that they could have been just as successful without him. But the pressure that would put on Smith to perform immediately when rookie tight ends often face struggles might not be worth it.
It’ll be interesting to see how Rudolph’s role evolves in this next phase of his career, as he crosses into his 30s when many players often start to see their production decline. Clearly the Vikings believe Rudolph does indeed have “a lot of game left.” There was no reason to bring him back if they didn’t think he could contribute in ways that will help the Vikings take a step beyond where they were last season.