By Shane Frederick
---- — MANKATO — A little more than a year ago, just before training camp began, Kyle Rudolph was studying film of future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez. He was trying to learn a thing or two and make himself a better player in his second season as a tight end with the Minnesota Vikings.
By January, Rudolph was replacing Gonzalez on the NFC Pro Bowl roster and grabbing MVP honors at that all-star game.
During his time in Hawaii, Rudolph hung out with another hero of his, Jason Witten, and picked the Cowboy's brain about playing tight end in the NFL.
"Jason and Tony are guys that I've looked up to my whole career," Rudolph, said after the first practice of this year's training camp, "(since) about the time I started playing as a freshman in high school when I moved to tight end. Those guys were well-established in the NFL by then, and I followed their careers the whole time."
Now, as he begins his third year in the league, the imposing, 6-foot-6 Rudolph is getting comparisons to the top players at what's fast becoming a glamour position in the NFL. He's the top returning pass catcher for the Vikings after hauling in 53 receptions for 493 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns last season. He was also counted on as a blocker for Adrian Peterson and one of the best rushing attacks in the league.
Rudolph isn't at his position's peak by any means; he's got a way to go before catching up to those he's studying and measuring himself against. Witten caught 110 passes for Dallas last year, while the great Gonzalez grabbed 93 for the Falcons in his 16th NFL season.
"We expect development," Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. "Kyle developed from year one to year two, and we are looking for another jump both in the run game and the pass game from Kyle. From all indication he is poised to do that."
Going into training camp, head coach Leslie Frazier added to Rudolph's responsibilities, calling on him among the young veterans he's hoping emerges as a team leader. Rudolph was a little surprised to get mentioned in the same leadership group as established veterans such as Jared Allen and Kevin Williams.
"It means a lot to me, that the head coach thinks that and expects that of me," Rudolph said. "It's what I expect of myself and to know that others expect that of you as well, it helps you when you're out on the field and you're pushed into that leadership role. … You can't be a leader if no one's following you, and to know that guys are behind you it definitely makes it a little bit easier to make sure you're out there and leading some of the guys on our team."
Rudolph admitted that he's more of a lead-by-example guy than a rah-rah, locker-room-speech guy.
"The big thing for me is making sure I'm always doing the right thing, whether that's on the practice field or off the practice field.," he said.
The experience of last season, one in which he established a rapport with quarterback Christian Ponder and saw his reception total more than double from his rookie year, put him in that position.
"The big thing for me last year was just gaining another year of experience throughout the season and having a little bit of a playoff taste," Rudolph said, "and then going on to the pro bowl, being around the best players in our game, getting to talk to some of them, seeing how they go about their business throughout a year."
The Vikings' receiving corps has undergone a makeover from last year, with the addition of veteran free agent Greg Jennings and first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson. And, of course, Peterson remains a focal point of the offense. Whether he's catching more passes or blocking for the team's superstar, Rudolph will be part of what he think will be a more balanced offense full of weapons.
"He had a terrific spring," Musgrave said. "He is a little heavier than he has been (258 pounds), but that is good weight. He is definitely stronger, and you know we pride the tight ends to be a big part of the running game. He did that last year, he is ready to do it again."