In conjunction with its Future Power Rankings, you might have noticed that ESPN.com's Insider group is posting its projected top 10 players at each position in 2016. Obviously it can't include those who haven't entered the league yet, but I was particularly interested in the tight end position given the number of relatively young and talented players we have in the NFC North.
As it turns out, analyst Gary Horton included only one of our division's tight ends: the Minnesota Vikings' Kyle Rudolph, whom he ranked No. 2 overall behind the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham. That left out the Green Bay Packers' Jermichael Finley, the Chicago Bears' Martellus Bennett and the Detroit Lions' Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler.
Here's what Horton wrote about Rudolph, who was an injury replacement to the 2012 Pro Bowl and wound up winning MVP honors:
"He is a gifted receiver with soft hands and he is Christian Ponder's favorite target. That should continue for years to come … if his QB plays to the level expected. Rudolph is a 'move' tight end who excels in space, and he is a tough defensive matchup. As much as his QB looks to him for a key play, this passing game doesn't stretch the field enough. Without Percy Harvin, can the guys outside threaten defenses enough to open things up for Rudolph? If that happens, the sky is the limit for him."
As we've discussed before, Rudolph's most important physical attribute is his enormous wingspan and catching radius. He stands a legitimate 6-foot-6, has 34-inch arms with enormous hands (10 3/4 inches). Any quarterback would love to throw to a player who has such a physical advantage over his opponents, and more often than not over the past two years, Rudolph has managed to catch passes that no defender could reach.
In terms of these rankings, it's worth noting that Rudolph is the youngest starting tight end in the NFC North. He'll be 26 in 2016. Finley and Bennett will be 29, Pettigrew will be 31 and Scheffler will be 33. That makes him easiest to project as a star in 2016. But the second-best tight end in football by then? That's where at least one analyst sees him going.