Is Kyle Rudolph ready to finally help Bucs offense?

Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times/TNS

TAMPA — One of the splash signings of July has remained submerged a few fathoms below relevance.

Kyle Rudolph made only a fleeting appearance in the Bucs locker room when it was open to the media Wednesday and Thursday, and perhaps that’s fitting. To this point, the two-time Pro Bowl tight end barely has been visible in the offense, making brief cameos in lieu of contributions.

And the stretching/agility sessions with trainers — alongside previously injured players such as receiver Chris Godwin — during the practice windows open to the media have fueled speculation about his health.

“He’s healthy,” coach Todd Bowles said Wednesday. “The young guys have been playing well. There’s nothing wrong with Kyle. He’s going to help us this year, we want him to help us. He’ll help us this week.”


Any presumption that Rudolph’s signing (one year, $2 million) would help offset the loss of a proven tight end was wrong. Turns out, the team had to lose two proven tight ends — Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate — for the 32-year-old veteran to see the field.

Among the last free agents signed before training camp, Rudolph — in his 12th NFL season — was a healthy scratch in four of the first six games. To this point, the staff has been more impressed by rookies Cade Otton (a bit faster) and Ko Kieft (a better blocker), both of whom also play special teams.

As a result, Rudolph — who averaged 63 catches a year from 2015-2018 — has one catch on two targets for 12 yards. But the neck injury Brate sustained last weekend in Pittsburgh almost certainly will thrust him back onto the game-day roster and into the rotation, where offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich believes the former Notre Dame star still can contribute.

“I believe there’s something still left in the tank,” Leftwich said Thursday. “He’s been having great practices really since he’s been here. Now he’s had enough time to really know what he’s doing, to know the system, understand how we’re going to use him and where we’re going to use him. So I think we’ll be fine there.”

History doesn’t betray quite as much optimism.

Since Giants doctors discovered an unspecified foot injury in March 2021 that required surgery, Rudolph’s productivity hasn’t approached the level it reached during his decade with the Vikings, where he made two Pro Bowls, scored 48 regular-season touchdowns and reached the playoffs four times.

The Giants, who signed Rudolph to a two-year, $14 million deal in the spring of 2021, released him after one lackluster season (26 catches, 257 yards, one touchdown). That came on the heels of his final year in Minnesota (28, 334, one TD), when he played just 12 games in 2020 and ended up on injured reserve with a foot injury.

His most valuable contribution in pewter so far has been as a mentor to rookies.

“It’s just been super cool to get to know him first of all,” said Otton, who has the most catches (12) of the healthy Bucs tight ends. “And then for him to just share his football knowledge, his experiences and what he sees on the field, he’s been super helpful to me and Ko.”

Maybe, just maybe, he’ll be a help on the field Sunday at Carolina — about two months later than most anticipated.

“He’s a Pro Bowl guy,” Leftwich said. “He’s a guy that’s been in this league, that’s been around a lot of football, so I believe we’ll be fine there.”

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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