The tight end position is similar to that of quarterback in that there are only a few elite options who clearly separate themselves from the rest of the position. After that, however, the position becomes a jumbled mess where it becomes difficult to separate one player from another. Of that pack at the tight end position, the one player who should jump out at you who could provide great value is Kyle Rudolph.
Rudolph had a very strong 2016 campaign as he finished as the seventh tight end in PPR points per game and third in total points scored, including six weeks in which he finished as a top six tight end. As for this season, he is currently the 10th tight end off the board according to fantasyfootballcalculator.com, which presents an interesting decision for fantasy owners to decide if his 2016 season was legitimate. For several reasons, most of which is the offense he plays in, fantasy owners should be confident that Rudolph will live up to his draft price and also presents upside based on his results last season.
Rudolph was the beneficiary of 132 targets last season and finished first on the Vikings in targets and also among all tight ends in the league. Over half of those targets came either in the red zone or on third-down, which is an indication that he was Sam Bradford’s favorite receiver to target in high-pressure situations.
For example, Rudolph was targeted 24 times in the red zone, which was double the figure that both Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen posted at 12 and 10 respectively. Similarly, on third down, Rudolph saw 44 targets as opposed to 29 for Adam Thielen and 27 for Stefon Diggs.
While these stats are more descriptive of what happened in 2016 than what is likely to occur in 2017, there is reason to believe these targets can carry over based on the known characteristics of Sam Bradford. Last season, Bradford finished 23rd among all quarterbacks in deep pass attempts, which are defined as pass attempts that travel 20 or more yards in the air. Measured in a different way, Bradford finished 22nd in air yards, which is the number of yards a quarterback’s receiver gains solely through the ball being thrown in the air.
Given this passing profile, Bradford isn’t likely to be aggressive in targeting his outside receivers on deeper throws, but will instead be content to target Rudolph in the short passing game. That means that while it’s impossible to predict with 100% confidence, he appears to be in line for over 100 targets again this season.
While volume was a career best for Rudolph last season, his efficiency took a turn for the worse. Rudolph posted a 62.9% catch rate, his worst since 2012. However, it’s not as simple as his volume increased so his efficiency decreased. Instead, it’s important to remember that Rudolph was adjusting to playing with new Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford. This narrative is supported by his numbers as Rudolph had just a 56.15% catch rate in the first eight games on the season. On the other hand, in the last eight games of the season, he posed a 68% catch rate. His volume also increased over this span as he went from 57 targets in the first eight games of the season to 75 in the second half of the season. This indicates that chemistry and familiarity helped Rudolph and Bradford understand how to put each other in positions to be successful.
All of these factors leave Rudolph with a good amount of upside heading into 2017. If, for example, he received 132 targets again this season and went the entire season with a 68% catch rate, he would end the season with 90 catches. Even if his targets were to fall to somewhere in the 90s, a regression nearer to his career norms, Rudolph would still have a floor of a 60 catch season with six touchdowns. That line is similar to that of Jimmy Graham last season, who is currently being drafted three rounds ahead of Rudolph, and makes him a perfect mid-round tight end to target in drafts.