TAMPA — Presumably, the shamrock tattoo on the inside of Kyle Rudolph’s left bicep signifies his Notre Dame allegiance.
It certainly hasn’t fostered good fortune, at least in terms of his postseason life.
“The only thing I haven’t done to this point is win a championship,” said the Bucs’ newest tight end, who has experienced two playoff victories in his 11 NFL seasons. “And that’s all I want to do.”
Recruited by Tom Brady even before Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement on June 21, Rudolph, 32, steps into arguably his most promising pro setting at his career twilight.
Flanked by veterans embedded in a championship culture (Brady, Mike Evans, etc.) as well as others eager to join one (Julio Jones, Akiem Hicks), the 6-foot-6 Cincinnati native and former Fighting Irish standout took his initial reps Wednesday with the team widely favored to win the NFC.
“For me, coming into a culture like that, to be around that type of vibe, that’s what I was looking for,” said Rudolph, a two-time Pro Bowler during his decade with the Vikings (2011-2020). “And certainly the obvious other reason was the quarterback and his play.”
Since arriving in Tampa and formally signing his one-year deal on Monday, Rudolph indicated that he has been nudging up to Brady to the point of pestering, which stands to reason. The guy he’s replacing caught 90 regular-season touchdown passes from Brady, helped him win four Super Bowls and developed a clairvoyance with the 44-year-old quarterback shared by no one else on the planet.
“Those shoes are way too big to fill, and I’ve got pretty big feet,” Rudolph said of Gronkowski.
“I feel like there’s so much ground to make up, and I don’t have 10 years of experience with Tom to make it up. We play the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1 in September, and my goal is to go out there that week and be on the same page with Tom like we have been playing together for 10 years.”
Rudolph got a sample of his quarterback’s precision and preferences for his receivers on Wednesday morning, when the Bucs practiced in shorts and helmets for nearly two hours. Roughly 16 months after foot surgery that may have impeded his progress in his lone season with the Giants last fall (26 catches, one touchdown), Rudolph said he feels fine now.
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“Today we had a couple of missed opportunities,” he said of his telepathy with Brady.
“I’ve run something a certain way my whole career, and he wants it a little bit different. And he’s the first one to come over and hit me on the head and tell me, ‘Dude, we’ll get that. Don’t worry about it.’ So there’s a lot of catchup from that standpoint.”
If Rudolph can cram as well as he can catch, a 30- to 40-catch season is plausible.
Though not considered a blocking force of nature like Gronkowski, Rudolph has posted four seasons of at least 50 catches, the latest in 2018 with the Vikings (64 receptions, 634 yards, four touchdowns). In Minnesota’s 26-20 playoff win against the Saints three seasons ago, he caught the decisive 4-yard scoring catch from Kirk Cousins in overtime.
“He brings intelligence, he brings toughness, he brings savvy, and he’s played the game for a while,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said.
“You’re not going to replace Gronk. We’ve got to do that in a variety of ways, whether it’s running back, the other tight ends, the receivers. ... But he brings us a veteran presence, understanding the ball game and he learns fast, so he’ll help us on Sundays.”
In turn, the Bucs perhaps might help him fill the only void on his pro resume.
“I’ve been knocking on the door,” Rudolph said. “I’ve been one game away from the big one, never gotten to the big one.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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