Kyle Rudolph: 2016 'more along the lines of what I expect for myself'

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings' decision to give Kyle Rudolph a five-year, $36.5 million contract extension in 2014 -- making him one of the NFL's highest-paid tight ends -- represented a show of faith in a player who hadn't caught more than 53 passes in a season before signing the deal.

That was still the case before the 2016 season, the last where Rudolph's base salary would be fully guaranteed as part of the contract. And in a bit of candor before his pivotal sixth year, Rudolph admitted he hadn't done what he'd hoped in his first five years, calling them a "mediocre" start to his career.

Rudolph wouldn't say that about his sixth season, when he was able to play all 16 games for just the third time in his career and finally develop into the kind of outlet the Vikings envisioned when they gave him a new deal. He thrived in an offense that was reconfigured around a short passing game, catching a career-high 83 passes for 840 yards and leading the team with seven touchdowns. No tight end in the NFC caught more passes than Rudolph, and only Baltimore's Dennis Pitta (with 86 catches) and Kansas City's Travis Kelce (with 85) surpassed him league-wide.

"I talked about how my first five years were kind of disappointing to me, in terms of my standards," Rudolph said. "This season was more along the lines of what I expect for myself, and what I expect moving forward, to kind of be a springboard and a baseline for the rest of my career."

The 2015 season saw Rudolph move beyond the injuries that limited him to eight games in both the 2013 and 2014 seasons, but he spent just 50 percent of his snaps running pass routes that season, according to ESPN Stats and Information, as the Vikings built their offense around Adrian Peterson and occasionally used Rudolph to help right tackle T.J. Clemmings in pass protection.

But as the Vikings' offensive identity shifted in the wake of Peterson's torn meniscus last September, Rudolph was deployed as a receiver more often and saw the ball coming his way more often. According to ESPN Stats and Information, he ran routes on 58 percent of his snaps and was targeted on a career-high 23.7 percent of his routes, as quarterback Sam Bradford sought him out to continue drives. Fifty of Rudolph's 83 catches went for first downs, accounting for nearly a quarter of the Vikings' 210 first downs through the air.

"There are a number of reasons why we struggled running the football, so we had to throw more than we had in the past," Rudolph said. "Does that play into it? Maybe. I say it all the time, in our position, it's not like receivers where all we have to do through the course of the game is catch balls. There's so many things that change through the course of the season.

"Even last year, my numbers might not have been as good, but there were other things I was asked to do. No matter what I'm asked to do, I want to make sure that when we go in on Monday morning and we watch the tape, the laser pointer's not on me; I'm not the guy causing a play to not reach its full potential or not make a four-yard run turn into a 12-yard run."

In a season that rated as the most bizarre of Rudolph's NFL career on the field, things also changed for the tight end off the field. His wife Jordan gave birth to twin girls on Oct. 5, and the weeks after the season for the tight end have been as much about diapers and bottles as rest and recovery.

"We don't know any different, with them being our first two kids," Rudolph said. "I couldn't imagine just having one at a time. Especially early on, when the mom does so much of it, as a father, there's not a whole lot you can do. But when you have two, there's always another one to hold and to snuggle with and to hang out with, because Mom's with the other one doing something. We each get to hold one, or when both grandmas are in town there's no argument about who gets to hold the babies. There's plenty to go around."