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Kyle Rudolph is a Steal

Thou shalt not denigrate Kirk Cousins’ new safety blanket.

USA TODAY Sports/Peter Rogers Illustrations

I already like Kyle Rudolph this year, but I think I might really like him. He is already a sturdy, safe presence at tight end in the middle rounds. Did you know Rudolph was the TE3 two years ago? Did you know he was the TE6 last year? This year, he is being drafted as the TE8 on average, despite the presence of Kirk Cousins, who is the best quarterback Rudolph has ever played with.

I have this perception that Kirk Cousins might be the best quarterback that Rudolph has ever played with, by a wide margin. So I spent some time looking at each quarterback, coach, and offensive coordinator that Kyle Rudolph has played with over the course of his career. It won’t take long to slog through the muck of Rudolph’s seven years. After that, we can compare Cousins’ production and see what awaits...

2011 - Head coach Leslie Frazier, Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, QBs Christian Ponder, Donovan McNabb, Joe Webb. Before you get excited about McNabb, he was 35 years old...the team completion percentage was 56.1%, TD% was 3.9%, 6.4 Y/A, and quarterbacks threw for 203.4 Y/G. Unsurprisingly, this team was 3-13 overall.

2012 - HC Leslie Frazier, OC Bill Musgrave, QB Christian Ponder. An upgrade this year, at 62.1% cmp%, TD% was 3.7%, 6.1 Y/A, and 183.4 Y/G. This team went 10-6, but not because of passing. Ponder had a 52.1 QBR.

2013 - Still Frazier/Musgrave. But with three QBs in Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder, and Josh Freeman. A 59.5% cmp%, 3.3 TD%, 6.7 Y/A, 227.8 Y/G. This team went 5-10-1. Cassel’s QBR was 51.6, Ponder checked in at 42.8.

2014 - A new head coach in Mike Zimmer. New OC in Norv Turner. QBs Teddy Bridgewater and Matt Cassel, with one game of Ponder thrown in. Up to a 62.3% cmp%, 3.3 TD%, 6.9 Y/A, 222.9 Y/G. Team went 7-9. Teddy’s QBR was 54.4, Cassel checked in at 47.4.

2015 - Still HC Zimmer, OC Turner. QB Teddy Bridgewater (all 16 games). Backup Shaun Hill attempted only three passes. A 64.8% cmp%, 3.1% TD%, 7.1 Y/A, only 202.9 Y/G. Teddy posted a 57.5 QBR. Team went 11-5.

2016 - HC Zimmer, OCs Pat Shurmur and Norv Turner. QB Sam Bradford (15 games) and backup Shaun Hill (one game). A 70.4% cmp%, 3.4% TD%, 7.0 Y/A, 257.4 Y/G. Bradford posted a 57.3 QBR. Team went 8-8 that year. That 257.4 Y/G is significant, as it coincides with the best Y/G total of Rudolph’s career.

2017 - HC Zimmer, OC Shurmur. QB Case Keenum (14 games) and Sam Bradford (2 games). A 67.7% cmp%, 4.7% TD%, 7.5 Y/A, 245.6 Y/G. Keenum had a 71.3 QBR, Bradford’s was 72.4 in his two games. The team went 13-3.

In summation, Rudolph has endured some putrid quarterback play, save for the last two years. Enter Kirk Cousins, who appears to be superior to any signal-caller Rudolph has ever played with. Here are Cousins’ career numbers in the aforementioned categories: 65.5% cmp%, 4.7 TD%, 7.7 Y/A, and 261.4 Y/G. But those are just career averages, which aren’t as illuminating. Let’s dig a little deeper into Kirk’s years as a starter:

Kirk Cousins throws more touchdowns...

In two of his three years as a starter, Cousins has had TD rates of 5.0% or greater (5.3%, 4.1%, 5.0%). During Rudolph’s career, here are the TD rates of Minnesota QBs each year: 3.9, 3.7, 3.3, 3.3, 3.1, 3.4, and 4.7. So that’s one year over 4.0%...yikes! Put differently, the best year for TDs by Minnesota quarterbacks (during Rudolph’s career) matches Kirk’s career average. And two of three years as a starter, Cousins has been well above that mark. Put another way, Kirk’s worst mark as a starter (4.1% in 2016) is better than every year by Minnesota quarterbacks except for 2017. If you are looking for scoring upside, the guy who most consistently leads this team in red zone looks appears to have it playing with Kirk Cousins. Rudolph ranks 2nd, 1st, and 1st in red zone looks for Minnesota over the last three seasons.

Kirk Cousins throws for more yardage...

Kirk’s averages per game over the last three years: 260.4, 307.3, and 255.8. Even in Cousins’ “worst” year for yardage (2017) he still posted a mark nearly equivalent to the best year by Minnesota QBs during Rudolph’s time (the 257.4 Y/G mark of 2016). Incidentally, that year was Rudolph’s best year for yardage, when he posted a 52.5 Y/G mark—well above his career mark of 32.8 Y/G.

Furthermore, Cousins is more efficient when he throws, which is important given the strength of the Vikings defense and the assumption that this team won’t need to throw much to survive and advance. Cousins’ career 7.7 Y/A is a higher mark than any QB or set of QBs that Rudolph has ever played with. Only twice (2016 and 2017) have Vikings QBs been at or above the 7.0 Y/A mark. And here are Cousins’ three years as a starter: 7.7, 8.1, and 7.6. Put another way: the best mark for Minnesota QBs was 7.5 Y/A last year, and that is below Cousins’ worst mark as a starter (7.6) and below Cousins’ career average (7.7). So the ceiling for any set of previous Minnesota QBs is lower than Cousins’ floor.

Target share outlook...

Rudolph amassed a 14.75% target share playing with Case Keenum in 2017 (a three-year low). The year prior he had a whopping 23.28% target share (Sam Bradford) and in 2015 he had a 15.82% share (Teddy). What is most encouraging to me, though, are the 16 games played in each of those last three seasons. Incoming quarterback Kirk Cousins is accustomed to throwing to his safety blankets, as Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis accounted for 19.14% of his targets last year (but Reed only appeared in six games). The year prior (when Reed was healthier) Reed and Davis totaled 24.85% of Cousins’ targets. I don’t see why Rudolph can’t get into the “teens” regarding target share in 2018, given that he’s the focal point when it comes to the tight end position in Minnesota...

Last year, the next highest-targeted tight end for the Vikings was David Morgan, at a 2.34% target share. In 2016, Morgan managed only a 0.17% share, while hybrid type Rhett Ellison siphoned away only 2.51% of targets. Lastly, in 2015 MyCole Pruitt managed only 3.74% of targets. So Kyle Rudolph is THE GUY at tight end in Minnesota. As for red zone looks? Remember that Rudolph ranks 2nd, 1st, and 1st for Minnesota over the past three years. If anything seems like an anomaly, it’s coming in second in red zone looks to Adam Thielen last year.

The Verdict

Add it all up, and if I miss out on the top three guys I’m fine selecting Rudolph for his mix of floor AND upside in the middle rounds—Round 8 in most cases. Based on the superior quarterback play that awaits him, I think his safe floor is now imbued with some upside—and tight end is such a travesty that Rudolph has already finished TE6 and TE3 in the last two seasons. I think he is currently being overlooked as the TE8, given Cousins’ efficiency and ability to throw touchdowns.

It’s a roster construction piece for me when it comes to Rudolph vs. Burton...I rank Burton one spot higher and appreciate his upside more. But Rudolph could turn in a “steady Eddie” type of season with a bump in yardage and the touchdowns required to make him an elite tight end. I rank Rudolph as the TE5, one spot behind Burton. I like his safety over Greg Olsen, Evan Engram, and Jimmy Graham. I am on the record as a “big three” believer in 2018. But if I miss out on those guys I’ll wait until Round 7 (Burton) or Round 8 (Rudolph).

What say you all? Are you buying a bit of a boost in Rudolph’s counting statistics this year? For reference, Rudolph had 12 more yards and two less scores than Jimmy Graham last season—on 15 fewer targets. Do you really want to spend a higher pick on Graham and bank on more touchdowns to save you?