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Releasing Kyle Rudolph Was Not the Wrong Move

Releasing Kyle Rudolph Was Not the Wrong Move

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Cumulous clouds actually fell onto the heads of Minnesota Vikings fans on Sunday when news revealed that tight end Irv Smith Jr. was beset by an injured meniscus.

No, that’s an exaggeration. The sky didn’t really fall, but the Smith news led some folks to surmise that releasing Kyle Rudolph last March was a mistake. General Manager Rick Spielman cut ties with Rudolph, who spent 10 seasons with the Vikings, as a cap-clearing maneuver.

Rudolph signed on with the New York Giants a couple of weeks later, entering a hodgepodge of tight end firepower in the Big Apple that includes Evan Engram, Kaden Smith, and now Rudolph.

But let’s be clear: Releasing Rudolph at the time was not a mistake by the Vikings.

Somehow, Minnesota has maintained around $13-14 million in cap room for approximately three months. It is bizarre in the best way possible. Any and all remaining free agents on the wire were available to the Vikings during the summer, and it’s reassuring to holster that flexibility. That doesn’t generally occur in a Vikings offseason.

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In 2020, Rudolph was the NFL’s fifth highest-paid tight end per average annual salary. He was targeted in the Vikings offense three times per game. Emphatically, that is not worth the price tag. Bottom-tier TE1s in the NFL are shown more attention than that.

Irv Smith Jr. was ascending the depth chart while a veteran tight end – who was paid like a Top 5 caliber player at his position – was just existing on the Vikings depth chart. It was time for Rudolph to either restructure – or start his second act elsewhere. He chose the latter.

Had Rudolph remained with the Vikings, his north-of-nine-million cap hit would still plop him among the NFL’s Top 5 tight ends in 2021, too. If the Vikings chose to throw him the ball in 2021 all the time – then, yes, Rudolph could potentially be worth the fee. His hands are legendary and his reliability in the redzone will live forever in Vikings lore. Yet, the days of targeting Rudolph ad nauseam – see: the 2016 season with 132 targets – are over.

The Vikings needed cap space, Rudolph was hogging it, and the team no longer featured him in the offense as it did in years past. It was an elementary decision to move on.

Indeed, the Smith injury news is bothersome, but now it is time for someone else to step up. That might be by Tyler Conklin, the presumptive TE1 for one-to-sixteen weeks. It might be a free agent like Tyler Eifert, Trey Burton, or Charles Clay. Maybe even a trade for someone like Zach Ertz will shakedown if the Smith injury prognosis is season-long.

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Lamenting Rudolph’s exodus to New York just because Smith got hurt is counterproductive. It’s also revisionist history. For example, “the Vikings should have never drafted Teddy Bridgewater; look what happened to his knee” sounds silly to read.

Perhaps the Vikings will be just fine with Conklin in the saddle. Smith could be healed up and be ready to go in September. Or – the team might miss him tremendously and audition a hodgepodge of free agents in an attempt to reconcile Smith’s projected production.

But paying a tight end who will be 32 years old in November at a Top 5 TE rate was never reasonable with an upstart Smith waiting in the wings.

Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday along with Raun Sawh and Sally from Minneapolis. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).

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