Nothing speaks to the unpredictability of NFL injuries quite like Kyle Rudolph being the only available Giants tight end.
Until last week, Rudolph had not fully practiced since signing a free-agent contract to leave the Vikings in March and subsequently undergoing foot surgery. He was on the physically unable to perform list from the start of training camp until Aug. 25. He watched Evan Engram and Kaden Smith carry the workload, especially after blocking specialist Levine Toilolo suffered a season-ending torn Achilles on Aug. 4.
“I tell people all the time the hardest part of our game is when you’re injured and can’t be on the field,” said Rudolph, who missed the final four games of 2020. “That’s what I dealt with since December, and it was just really exciting for me the last couple of weeks being back out there.”
Flash forward to Monday, when Rudolph was catching passes in practice from Daniel Jones while Engram (calf) was jumping rope with trainers and Smith watched from the sideline.
What a total role reversal.
“I’ve certainly had enough time to get healthy,” Rudolph said, “so here we are.”
There’s no easing his way back. Rudolph is listed as a starter on the depth chart and could have to go from zero to 60 (snaps) in Week 1. Smith is expected back Wednesday after a curious load-management day essentially gave him five straight days off, and the Giants could promote one or more tight ends (Chris Myarick, Ryan Izzo and Jake Hausmann) from the practice squad on game day.
“You play this game long enough, you know what it takes,” Rudolph said. “Whatever is needed from me, I’m ready to go. Whether it’s 25, 50, 75 [snaps], who knows? With overtime we could get into the 80s or 90s. I’m just going to keep going until they take me out.”
The Giants could go three- and four-wide to compensate for being undermanned at tight end, but that’s not ideal with an offensive line already mismatched against the Broncos’ Bradley Chubb and Von Miller. The more blockers, the better.
“You look at the team that we’re playing and the two guys that they have on the edge, I can guess what my role is going to be for most of the game,” Rudolph said. “But, at the same time, you just have no idea and that’s part of the beauty of the tight end position. You have to be locked in on every play because our role is in all three phases of the game — run, pass and protection.”
The irony is blocking used to be considered a weakness in Rudolph’s skill-set. He went to Pro Bowls in 2012 and 2017 when he had the two highest touchdown-catch totals of his career (nine and eight, respectively). He has four 50-catch seasons, including a career high 83 in 2016.
Those big numbers in 2016 and 2017 came under then-Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur — who became Giants head coach for two seasons and will be on the opposing sideline Sunday as Broncos offensive coordinator.
“He definitely will be one of those guys that hopefully after the game, after a win, I can go see him,” Rudolph said. “He’s certainly one of the guys that I have a great affinity for in this game and I have a ton of respect for. He’s as good of a human being as they come, and he’s equally as good of a coach.”
Now the Giants are hoping — for at least the first two games, with Washington’s vaunted defensive line looming — to use Rudolph as a pseudo sixth offensive lineman.
“I’m not going to improve those guys,” Rudolph said. “Those are five guys that have worked extremely hard. Five guys that, in my opinion, have the toughest job in our game. The highest-paid players on defense [are] the guys they’ve got to keep from getting to the quarterback.
“But I have done a lot more pass-protecting and blocking in recent years, so if I can be there for them, help them and take some of the burden off them, then I’ll gladly do it.”