This past season shed light on the revolution that is occurring at the tight end position in the NFL. Under most point-per reception fantasy leagues, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham were both ranked in the top four receivers; only taking back seat to Calvin Johnson and Wes Welker. Needless to say, a tight end slot on your fantasy team is no longer a week to week waiver wire pick up. If you are not fortunate enough to nab either of these two options, which are going to cost at a minimum second or third rounders in redraft leagues, then Davis, Witten, Hernandez, Gonzalez, Gates or Finley might be alternatives. But let's dig a little deeper so that the true draft day strategizers can start their sleeper lists early. Remember that compiling a sleeper list is absolutely essential in mining for value during the later rounds.
When looking for breakout tight ends, hunt no further than a team with a young wide-eyed quarterback such as the Minnesota Vikings' Christian Ponder. Ponder's partner in crime is Kyle Rudolph , who was taken in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft and is one of the newest members of the Vikings. Rudolph and Ponder both came into the league at the same time and spent several weeks of the 2011 off-season training and living together. There is definitely no question about the compatibility of these two players, even though they only connected for 2 touchdowns last season. The lack of touchdowns could be blamed on the rather anemic Vikings offense, which ranked 19th in scoring by posting 21.3 points per game in 2011.
Visanthe Shiancoe, who posted a 51.4% catch rating this past season, was technically ahead of him on the depth chart last season; however, over that same span Rudolph posted a 66.7% catch rating. This statistic is important because once again Rudolph will be in a TE time share with John Carlson. Rudolph has shown great hands when involved in a multi-TE setup and any hint of increased targets should lead to good-to-great numbers. His targets should be on the upswing because ESPN 1500 recently reported that Rudolph "seems to have regained a half-step". Couple an increase in speed with a multitude of enthusiastic remarks made by Ponder that indicate his comfortability with him and playmaking optimism in him (from the St. Paul Pioneer Press). These are signs that point toward Rudolph being a focal point not only in the two-TE set next year, but also in the overall flow of the offense.
Physically, Rudolph is a monster specimen with startling similarities to the best tight end in the game, Rob Gronkowski. Rudolph, born in 1989, is 6'6", weighs 258 pounds, and runs the 40 yard dash in 4.80 seconds. Gronkowski, also born in 1989, is 6'6", weighs in at 265 pounds and runs the 40 yarder in 4.65 seconds. In a league where the tight end position is gaining steam, finding a young stud that is a prototype of the single season total yardage, receiving touchdown, and total touchdown record holder for tight ends is not a bad place to start.
Kyle Rudolph comes from a distinguished pedigree of Notre Dame tight ends that have found success to varying degrees at the collegiate and professional levels. For starters, Dave Casper leads this list as a NFL hall of fame inductee in 2002 followed by arguably the best tight end ever to play for the Fighting Irish in Ken MacAfee. Current NFL stars Anthony Fasano and John Carlson round out this list. Although bitten by the injury bug his sophomore and junior years in college, Rudolph appears fully healthy and put many of those injury worries to rest during his 2011 campaign.
In conclusion, Kyle Rudolph will be waiting for you in the 10th round or later in upcoming fantasy football drafts. Do yourself a favor; pull out some paper, and start your drafting wish list. Make sure to put Rudolph at the front of your sleigh(per) rankings and be rewarded with a top 12 TE for 2012.