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Cumulative clouds fell on the minds of Minnesota Vikings fans on Sunday as news revealed that Irv Smith Jr. at the tight end was ravaged by an injured meniscus.
No, that’s an exaggeration. Heaven didn’t quite fall, but the Smith news made some people suspect that releasing Kyle Rudolph last March was a mistake. General Manager Rick Spielman severed ties with Rudolph, who spent 10 seasons with the Vikings, as a cap-clearing maneuver.
Rudolph signed with the New York Giants a few weeks later, entering a hodgepodge of tight firepower in the Big Apple, including Evan Engram, Kaden Smith and now Rudolph.
But let’s be clear: releasing Rudolph at the time was no fault of the Vikings.
Somehow, Minnesota has kept about $13-14 million worth of cap-room for about three months. It’s bizarre in the best possible way. All of the remaining free agents on the wire were available to the Vikings over the summer, and it’s reassuring to keep that flexibility. That generally doesn’t happen in an off-season Vikings.
In 2020, Rudolph was the NFL’s fifth highest paid tight end by average annual salary. He was the target of the Vikings attack three times per game. That is emphatically not worth the price tag. Bottom TE1s in the NFL get more attention than that.
Irv Smith Jr. climbed the depth chart, while a veteran tight end – who was paid as a Top 5 player in his position – only existing on the depth map of the Vikings. It was time for Rudolph to either restructure – or start his second act elsewhere. He chose the latter.
If Rudolph had stayed with the Vikings, his north-of-nine million cap hit would still see him in the NFL’s top 5 in 2021. If the Vikings chose to throw him the ball in 2021 all the time – then, yes, Rudolph could possibly be worth the fee. His hands are legendary and his reliability in the red zone will live on forever in Viking lore. Still, the days of targeting Rudolph ad nausea—see: the 132-target 2016 season—are over.
The Vikings needed cap space, Rudolph owned it and the team no longer showed him on the attack as they have in years past. It was a basic decision to move on.
Smith’s injury news is indeed upsetting, but now it’s time for someone else to step up. That could be by Tyler Conklin, the suspected TE1 for one to sixteen weeks. It could be a free agent like Tyler Eifert, Trey Burton or Charles Clay. Perhaps even a trade for someone like Zach Ertz will come as a shock if the Smith injury prognosis is a season long.
It’s counterproductive to complain about Rudolph’s exodus to New York just because Smith was injured. It is also revisionist history. For example: ‘The Vikings should never have drafted Teddy Bridgewater; look what happened to his knee” sounds crazy to read.
Maybe the Vikings are fine with Conklin in the saddle. Smith could be cured and ready to leave in September. Or – the team could miss him terribly and audition for a hodgepodge of free agents in an effort to reconcile Smith’s planned production.
But paying a tight end that 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 host a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday along with Raun Sawho and Sally from Minneapolis. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Guilty pleasures listed: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos’ and The Doors (the band).
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