MANKATO, Minnesota — The Minnesota Vikings have pledged to make Kyle Rudolph a larger part of their offense for, well, his whole career.
Now this enhanced role is almost inevitable: He's carrying 15 fewer pounds this season and playing for a lot more money.
"It's an honor to know that they have the faith in me and the trust in me to instill that value in me, and I'm going to do everything I can to go out on the field and perform at that level," Rudolph said between practices on Monday, after signing a five-year contract extension the night before.
He added: "I want to be the best tight end in the NFL, and that's why I go out every day to work the way that I do."
The Vikings were enamored enough with the soft-handed, slender Rudolph that they drafted him out of Notre Dame in the second round in 2011 despite a nasty injury, a torn right hamstring, that he was still recovering from at the time.
Rudolph won the Most Valuable Player award at the Pro Bowl after the 2012 season, but he has accumulated a modest 1,055 yards and 15 touchdowns over three years in the NFL. Jimmy Graham exceeded both of those totals last season for New Orleans. Rob Gronkowski did the same three years ago for New England.
The Vikings have long believed the 6-foot-6 Rudolph, who used a better offseason diet to start training camp at a lean weight of 258, can become that featured receiver who can catch passes all over the field, in addition to being a go-to target in the end zone.
"I think he's trying to work the Jimmy Graham deal," close friend and quarterback Christian Ponder said, joking about Rudolph's sleeker look. "He looks good out here, and you can tell he's very polished in what he's doing."
Rudolph's new deal has a maximum worth of $40 million. About half of that is practically guaranteed, and his annual average salary will be in the top five of all NFL tight ends. Graham makes the most.
"He's worked as hard as anyone in this organization, and he is getting himself ready to have a great year," offensive coordinator Norv Turner said.
Rudolph, who missed the last half of last season because of a broken left foot, will be asked to run more routes up the seam between the 20-yard lines this year. He'll likely find himself standing up and split out a lot, rather than the traditional three-point stance for tight ends of the previous generation.
With more rules discouraging defensive backs from levying big hits, larger, and faster and stronger athletes continuing to enter the league, and passing attacks become more and more potent, the tight end has flourished into a true skill position. Turner has a history of significant production by tight ends in his scheme, from Antonio Gates in San Diego to Jordan Cameron last year in Turner's lone season with Cleveland.
From Rudolph to running back Adrian Peterson, the early reviews of Turner's system have been raving.
"I'm sure you guys wrote stories about us being predictable the past seven years. You won't be able to write that story this year," Peterson said. "That's pretty much all I'm saying: You won't be able to do that, because this offense is so versatile."
The Vikings invested in Rudolph for reasons beyond the physical attributes, too.
Head coach Mike Zimmer called him "a pleaser," who's willing to "buy into everything" the new staff is trying to do with the team. Rudolph said he'd keep the same house in the Twin Cities area and continue to drive the same truck, splurging only for philanthropy: to upgraded the weight room at his alma mater, Elder High School in Cincinnati.
"I'm anticipating that he'll continue to flourish," Zimmer said, adding: "He's a good guy, and I like when good guys get rewarded."