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Zulgad: Kyle Rudolph appears to be beating Vikings at contract game

Did the Vikings underestimate Kyle Rudolph’s willingness and ability to play contractual hardball? It certainly seems that way.

How else do you explain that it seems as if Rudolph is entering his final days as a member of the only NFL organization for which he has played since being drafted out of Notre Dame in the second round in 2011?

Since NFL organizations and players are loathe to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, it’s up to us to put the pieces of the Rudolph contract puzzle together to figure out how we got here.

That’s not very difficult to do.

Entering the final season of his contract, Rudolph carries a $7.625 million salary cap hit for 2019 and the team can cut him without any penalty because there is no guaranteed money owed on the $7.5 million he’s set to make. Considering the NFL Players Association’s public salary-cap report says the Vikings have only $738,054 in available cap room, it’s not surprising the team wants to rework Rudolph’s contract to free up space to sign first-round pick Garrett Bradbury.

The theory here — and from many other places for months now — has been that Rudolph would be asked to restructure. Rudolph had not previously admitted this — the NFL Network “broke the story” Friday by reporting that talks between Rudolph and the Vikings to re-negotiate his deal had been tabled and a trade might be coming — but common sense says there had to be feelers put out toward the veteran weeks ago about his willingness to alter his contract.

If the 29-year-old was offered an extension with plenty of guarantees down the road odds are good he would have accepted. But if the Vikings were looking to give an aging player a team-favorable deal, odds are Rudolph would have balked.

And that’s likely what happened.

So where did the Vikings potentially misjudge things?

The assumption likely was that Rudolph would be a good employee and take what was offered. He and his wife, Jordan, do a lot in the Twin Cities community, including their work with the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. Would Rudolph really reject the Vikings’ offer and either force a trade or go elsewhere?

The Vikings also probably thought Rudolph would acquiesce when they used their second-round pick in last month’s draft on Alabama tight end Irv Smith Jr.

But general manager Rick Spielman and Co., apparently failed to factor in a few key factors. The first is that Rudolph has no real incentive to buy whatever the Vikings are selling. Is he one of the best tight ends in the NFL? No. But he’s in the next group and if the Vikings don’t want him someone else, perhaps the Patriots, will be more than willing to give him a multiyear contract.

Rudolph also can be forgiven if he’s a bit sour with the Vikings — remember, he showed up for the first day of the offseason program last month wearing a sweatshirt that said “Lots of Game Left” — because he watched coach Mike Zimmer get to keep a few players from his beloved defense while Rudolph’s situation remained unsettled.

Linebacker Anthony Barr, whose departure to the Jets would have helped create cap space, surprised everyone by deciding to return to the Vikings on a five-year, $67.5 million deal that includes $33 million in guarantees. Defensive end Everson Griffen agreed to a restructured contract that took his 2019 base salary from $10.9 million, with a cap hit of $11.9 million, to a base salary of $6.4 million with a cap hit of $7.9 million.

Jettisoning Griffen might have made the most sense, considering his age (31) and the fact the Vikings have two ends, Danielle Hunter and Stephen Weatherly, capable of replacing him.

One has to think that new Vikings assistant head coach Gary Kubiak, whose title should be head coach/offense, can’t be too happy about the prospect of losing Rudolph. Two seasons after catching a career-high 83 passes for 840 yards, and grabbing seven touchdowns, Rudolph had a solid season in 2018, finishing with 64 receptions for 634 yards and four touchdowns. Kubiak is known for using his tight ends and having Rudolph and Smith together would give the Vikings a quality one-two punch. Smith being the Vikings’ main tight end is a risky ask for a rookie.

Despite his solid stats last season, there did not appear to be great chemistry between $84 million quarterback Kirk Cousins and Rudolph. Rudolph’s role in the offense came up during the season and there certainly was some blame that could go to 13-game and out offensive coordinator John DeFilippo for how things unfolded.

But even with DeFilippo gone, and Kubiak and coordinator Kevin Stefanski now running the show, the Vikings might have missed on the fact that Rudolph could be excited by the prospect of getting away from Cousins. Let’s see, Kyle, would you rather play with Cousins or Tom Brady? That might be an easy decision.

Rudolph continued to say all the right things Monday while attending Zimmer’s golf tournament in Eden Prairie.

“I’ve stated it many of times: My family, myself, we want to be here and we’re going to do everything we can to be here,” Rudolph told reporters. “But that doesn’t mean if the alternative happens and we do get traded — change happens. We’ve been so fortunate to be in one place for eight years that you don’t realize how many guys change teams on a yearly basis. Obviously, that’s not what we’re hoping for. We’ve been very fortunate to be in one place going on nine years and this is home for us, it’s going to be home for us and that’s the way we want it to be.”

That’s the thing. If Rudolph and his family enjoy living in the Twin Cities as much as he says, there is no reason he can’t get himself a nice rental place in his new city, spend all of that time focused on the NFL season, and then return home when he wants in the offseason. There also is no reason he can’t settle here with his wife and kids fulltime when his playing days are done.

That could come after he gets a lucrative contract — and has success — with another team. Or, if the Vikings really don’t want to lose Rudolph, they could give him a contract extension that he wants, or keep his current contract as is and attempt to restructure or move another player.

Any way it plays out, Rudolph has put himself in a no-lose situation and has put the Vikings in a difficult one.


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