The Minnesota Vikings Took the Right Kind of Gamble on Kyle Rudolph

It might seem like Kyle Rudolph was overpaid by the Vikings, but our numbers paint a different picture.

The Minnesota Vikings made a splash and disrupted the NFL news cycle from it's 24/7 coverage of Johnny Manziel by announcing that tight end Kyle Rudolph had been signed to a new, long-term contract.

The deal will pay Rudolph 36.5 million dollars over five years, according to Spotrac. And at first glance, that seemed like way too much to pay for a player like Rudolph. But before jumping to conclusions, let's take a look behind the numbers to see what the Vikings are getting.

Rudolph Versus the Position

Before you even begin to look at the chart below (seriously, don't look yet!), it's important to understand that Rudolph is still only 24 years old. He's entering his athletic prime, but has spent the first three years of his NFL career on horrible passing offenses that have "aged" him in the mind of the average football fan far beyond his actual age.

In fact, the Vikings had the ninth-worst passing offense in the league last season, according to our metrics. And while they do have a tight end guru running their offense and won't be starting Josh Freeman at quarterback again any time soon, they still aren't producing an ideal environment in which a tight end can be groomed and allowed to flourish.

So with that said, here are Rudolph's numbers, compared to his peers, over the past three seasons. The "REC NEP" column refers to our Reception Net Expected Points (NEP), which measures the impact a receiver has on his team on the passes he catches. Success Rate is a measure of how often the receiver gains positive NEP for his team on a reception, and salary is the player's average salary (in millions), according to Spotrac.

NameReceptionsREC NEPNEP/RecNEP/TargetSuccess RateSalary
Rob Gronkowski184265.531.440.9993.48%9.00
Jimmy Graham270319.261.180.7588.52%10.00
Vernon Davis160179.091.120.7580.63%7.35
Antonio Gates190207.061.090.7390.00%7.24
Jason Witten262250.120.950.6787.02%7.40
Dennis Pitta121117.560.970.6477.69%6.40
Jared Cook144147.321.020.6284.72%7.02
Kyle Rudolph109103.620.950.5877.98%7.30
Martellus Bennett137118.640.870.5683.21%5.10
Marcedes Lewis11698.280.850.4783.62%6.80

Rudolph doesn't exactly stand out within this group, boasting one of the lower Success Rates and generally low averages in addition to falling short in overall production.

But when his salary is put into perspective, it makes a lot of sense to pay him what he's being paid. Giving him a similar deal to Dennis Pitta and Jared Cook places him in the same "we're paying you for what you could be" territory that those two tight ends received with similar resumes before earning their big deals.

Vernon Davis had only posted one excellent year prior to receiving his contract, while Witten and Gates had already posted several good seasons before being rewarded for their past efforts with paychecks in the same neighborhood.

What To Expect from Rudolph

What the chart above shows us, more than anything else, is that paying a tight end in or before his prime is a bit of a gamble. While it paid off for the 49ers with Davis, it backfired on the Jaguars (who admittedly have had an all-around poor passing offense since paying Lewis). And it may have backfired on the Rams with Cook.

But the Vikings still only paid the going rate for a tight end with "upside and potential" and a decent resume through three seasons. Rudolph has been on par with Witten, Cook, Pitta and Martellus Bennett over the past three seasons on a per-catch and per-target basis, but hasn't seen the volume of those other tight ends.

And that's where the big question lies for Rudolph and the Vikings. Can the young tight end continue to play at a similar level or better with more targets? The improvements in the passing game should help, as should the addition of Norv Turner to run the show on offense.

Last year, our own JJ Zachariason looked back at Norv Turner's history with tight ends, and concluded that Jordan Cameron could be a huge value at tight end if he was able to live up to the hype surrounding his physical tools. That's because Turner has consistently produced better-than-average tight ends, and used them frequently. JJ's conclusion proved to be accurate, as Cameron broke out in 2013.

Rudolph is a similarly talented athlete who has been plagued by a poor supporting cast and offense for the past few seasons, and seems on the verge of a breakout. But based on a comparison to his peers, he really only needs to keep doing what he's doing with more targets to be worth his contract.

A breakout under Turner would mean the Vikings are actually getting a great deal by paying Rudolph the same amount as Witten, Cook and Pitta, and that's what the Minnesota front office seems to be banking on. The talent is certainly there, as we saw when Rudolph earned a Pro Bowl bid and put on a show in the exhibition game in Hawaii after the 2012 season. Can that translate into a full-time, center-of-attention role as the "star" of the Minnesota passing game?

His coaching staff, previous production on bad offenses, and athletic profile certainly add up to positive outlook if you're a hopeful Vikings fan.