With the 2010 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Before the 2011 scouting combine begins on Feb. 24, we'll be taking a closer look at the 40 draft-eligible players who may be the biggest difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue our series with Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph. Despite missing the last seven games of the 2010 season with a hamstring injury, and two more games in 2009 with a shoulder injury, Rudolph finished his Fighting Irish career with the fourth-most receptions and receiving yards in school history -- 90 catches, 1,032 yards and eight touchdowns in 29 games. If not for questions about his injury history, Rudolph might be ranked higher on a lot of boards, but he's generally considered to be the top player at his position in this draft class.
Pros: Tough in traffic on slants, crosses and curls, Rudolph has no fear over the middle. Good route-runner with an excellent feel for openings in zones. Has a command of timing routes, outs and fades. Better-than-average speed on intermediate routes, especially when lined up in the slot. Quick turn upfield on short throws. Has a nose for the first-down marker and will go out of his way to extend the play in these situations. Good short-area agility for his height.
Because of his versatility from a "line-up" perspective, can provide formation diversity in the right kind of offense. Was off to a very hot start in 2010 before he was hurt; caught eight passes each against Michigan and Michigan State early in the season. Impressed even as a true freshman; Rudolph really hit the ground running.
Cons: Doesn't always present a "wide" target; Rudolph is flummoxed too easily by inaccurate throws -- it seems that if you don't hit him between the numbers, things can get iffy. He's inconsistent overall with his hands, and he'll occasionally drop a pass that leaves you wondering. Would like to see more of an ability to break tackles at his size (6-foot-6, 265 pounds).
At times ... I don't want to say that he "folds" on a hit, but he doesn't always go after all the yardage. Maybe he's being coached to "live to fight another day"? Not always a defined blocker in H-back and inline roles, though I think he could be -- he's just a guy who played a lot in the slot.
Conclusion: Like rookie star Rob Gronkowski(notes), Rudolph had to go through missing a lot of his last collegiate season due to injury (actually, Gronkowski missed all of his), and Gronkowski may be the best professional example of Rudolph's possible route to NFL success. When the Patriots blew up their deep ball offense and went with a more integrated attack that featured rookie tight ends Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez(notes) attacking defenses up the seam, it proved tough to stop.
Rudolph presents an appealing hybrid skill set at his position -- he's not just a big wideout like some tight ends these days, but he can go in a Colts-style offense in which he'd be in the slot 80 percent of the time. What Gronkowski proved in his rookie NFL season was that he could block inline and that he had sure hands. There are still some concerns about Rudolph's ability to match that acumen in those areas, but he's got the potential to be elite. His early path to success will likely be through longer zone sits and seam routes.
NFL Comparison: Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
More Shutdown 40
#40 -- Rodney Hudson, OG, Florida State | #39 - Luke Stocker, TE, Tennessee
| #38 - Phil Taylor, DT, Baylor | #37 - Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas | #36 -- Leonard Hankerson, WR, Miami | #35 -- Danny Watkins, OL, Baylor | #34 - Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State | #33 -- Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State | #32 - Mike Pouncey, OL, Florida | #31 - Nate Solder, OT, Colorado