It's Time to Stop Overlooking Kyle Rudolph in Fantasy Football Drafts

Kyle Rudolph churned out a tremendous 2016 season for fantasy football, but he's just the ninth tight end off the board this year. Where should he be going instead?

Where were you when Travis Kelce had his run of destruction last year?

From Week 8 through Week 16, the Kansas City Chiefs funneled their offense through Kelce. He had 27.03% of the team's targets in that span, hitting the 100-yard mark in six of nine games, ripping the hearts straight from the chest cavities of opposing fantasy owners.

He didn't lead all tight ends in targets.

How about Greg Olsen? He had 1,000 yards receiving for the third consecutive season, handling 23.80% of the Carolina Panthers' targets, a stout mark for the position.

Nah, fam.

What about Delanie Walker? Zach Ertz? Jimmy Graham?

No, not a chance, and definitely not.

Topping this list with a whopping 132 targets was none other than Kyle Rudolph. Only Olsen came close with 129 targets, and no other tight ends were within 10 of Rudolph.

And yet, outside of Ertz, every guy listed above will cost you more in fantasy football than Rudolph does right now. Although that's justified for some, it probably shouldn't be that way.

Rudolph is currently an eighth-round pick in 12-team, point-per-reception (PPR) drafts, according to Fantasy Football Calculator, the ninth tight end off the board. He's almost a full round behind Martellus Bennett, the guy going immediately in front of him at the position, putting Rudolph in an average draft position (ADP) tier all by himself.

So, why exactly should we be buying into Rudolph? It's about more than just last year's target totals, though those clearly play a role. Let's lay out the reasoning behind this to show why he's a player you should be targeting in upcoming drafts.

Consistency in a Land of Inconsistency

The tight-end position often drew the ire of the fantasy world last year with few options outside of Kelce and Olsen both staying healthy and providing consistent production. Rudolph likely belongs in a similar class.

Over 16 games last year, Rudolph had at least eight targets in 11 games. No other tight end had more than eight such games, and only 10 tight ends had at least five. He had seven targets in another game and was held to fewer than five targets just three times. Rob Gronkowski had fewer than five targets four times despite playing in half as many games as Rudolph.

These weren't just hollow targets for Rudolph, either. He had double-digit points (based on half-PPR scoring) eight times, tied with Olsen for the second-most occasions behind Kelce. For a position lacking players who provided you with a floor, Rudolph really did compare well to some of his best peers.

The targets and the floor are great for Rudolph, but it'd be understandable if you had concerns about his ceiling. People generally don't flock to offenses led by Sam Bradford when they're looking for fantasy goodness. However, Rudolph has the keys to having a respectable ceiling, too, and part of that is because of Bradford. Let's touch on those two big components necessary for high-upside potential: an efficient offense and volume in the red zone.

An Underrated Offense

Even with Rudolph getting bonkers target levels, the tight-end position is still one that's driven by touchdowns. If you're on an offense that can't generate them, it's hard to make yourself fantasy relevant. That's not as big of a concern with the Minnesota Vikings under Bradford as it may seem.

We can quantify this with the help of numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP), the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players. NEP tells us the expected points added (or subtracted) on each play, illustrating the difference between a five-yard completion on 3rd and 4 and the same completion on 3rd and 6.

There were 39 quarterbacks who recorded at least 100 drop backs last year. Bradford ranked 12th among them in Passing NEP per drop back, which includes deductions for the expected points lost on sacks. This put Bradford one spot behind Marcus Mariota and ahead of guys like Jameis Winston, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson. It's not the world's best offense, but is it one that can generate points? You bet your bottom it can.

It's important to revisit one key phrase from the last paragraph. "(NEP) includes deductions for the expected points lost on sacks." Only three teams lost more such points last year than the Vikings, meaning Bradford's metrics could be even better had the guys up front not dropped like flies due to injuries throughout the season. The Vikings worked to correct that in the offseason.

New Faces Up FrontPositionInvestment
Riley ReiffTackle$26.3 million guaranteed
Mike RemmersTackle$10.5 million guaranteed
Pat ElfleinCenterThird-Round Pick
Danny IsidoraGuardFifth-Round Pick

These may not be the most elite assets to add into the fold, but simply having healthy, functioning bodies will be an improvement over 2016. If they can manage to keep Bradford (or, hypothetically, Teddy Bridgewater) upright, it will go a long way toward making the offense even better than it was in 2016, and it wasn't that bad to begin with.

It's easy to see a scenario in which the Vikings' offense clicks along in an efficient manner this upcoming season. That will generate trips to the red zone. And Rudolph is a major factor there.

Red-Zone Involvement

Getting to the red zone wouldn't matter much for Rudolph if he didn't get targets once the team was there. That's not going to be a concern.

Rudolph had 24 red-zone targets last year, the second-highest mark in the entire league. That's not just among tight ends; that's among every dude in the league. Only Jordy Nelson topped Rudolph, and the second-highest tight end was Antonio Gates with 18 red-zone targets. Rudolph was a monster from a usage perspective in close.

He was also easily the focal point of the Vikings' offense. Rudolph had a 32.43% target market share in the red zone, doubling Stefon Diggs' second-place mark of 12 targets inside the 20. The Vikings did add Michael Floyd via free agency, but there are few reasons to expect that they won't turn Rudolph's way again with regularity.

Going back to the previous section, it seems fully possible that the Vikings' offense will be better in 2017 than it was last year. If that were to happen, they would hypothetically generate more red-zone trips. Given Rudolph's assumed role there, he's going to have a path to upside, and you don't have to make any wild assumptions to get there. Even if the Vikings' offense remains stagnant and duplicates 2016, Rudolph finished that year second among tight ends in half-PPR scoring. That -- plus the possibility for more -- is enough to make his ADP look silly.

Where Should We Draft Rudolph?

It seems pretty clear that Rudolph is a bargain where he's currently going. But that doesn't tell us at what point we should be pulling the trigger.

Because of Rudolph's ADP, you can feel safe holding off on him until at least the seventh round, and there's a good chance he'll be on the board. That would put him in the same ADP tier as Tyler Eifert along with the aforementioned Walker and Bennett. There's no reason to exclude him from that group.

Eifert has supreme touchdown potential, so you could make an argument for placing him above Rudolph. But Rudolph also has a case for hovering closer to Graham, who is going in the middle of the sixth round. It would seem more appropriate to have Graham, Rudolph, and Eifert in their own, individual tier, ahed of guys like Walker and Bennett. If you want to get frisky, you can hope Rudolph sticks around for your eighth-round pick, but it's fully justifiable to reach a bit due to what's going around him.

Normally, we are guilty of chasing last year's performances when drafting the following season. With Rudolph, that's not the case. He was a superb asset last year, and we have reason to believe he'll be just as good as that -- if not better -- in the upcoming campaign. It's not the sexiest pick in the world, but right now, it certainly seems like the right one.