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Irv Smith Jr. is PRIMED to Breakout

Tanishka Mhaskar
May 15th, 2020
Photo: Vikings.Com

When the Vikings drafted Irv Smith Jr. in the second round of the 2019 NFL draft, many assumed that the team would move on from reliable veteran Kyle Rudolph. Instead, the Vikings extended Kyle Rudolph and shifted the direction of their offense to an increasing use of two tight end sets.

The Vikings utilized two or more tight ends on 56.7 percent of offensive plays, and 28 of 45 touchdowns were scored when there were two or more tight ends on the field. The Vikings top two tight ends, Rudolph and Smith Jr. were utilized in a various amount of ways: blocking and catching. 

With Smith Jr, the Vikings get a dynamic receiving tight end who’s a hybrid, with the build of a wide receiver. Minnesota drafted him in the second round much like they did Rudolph, and it’s another pass-the-torch situation. The Vikings had the luxury of easing Smith Jr. into the NFL as Smith didn’t play more than 50 percent of the offensive snaps in his first four games as a rookie. The snaps gradually rose to 60 percent, and then eventually all the way up to 85 percent by Week 16. 

Smith Jr.’s numbers weren’t off the charts: he posted 36 receptions for 311 yards and two touchdowns in 15 games. However, when WR Adam Thielen went down, Smith Jr. slowly started becoming a reliable option for QB Kirk Cousins. 

Before the Week 10 matchup at Dallas, Cousins said “It’s slowly becoming Irv Smith” in response to who his favorite target after Stefon Diggs is. Diggs is gone now, and in the midst of COVID-19, it remains unclear how much on-field practice time will be made up. The Viking’ second wide receiver, rookie Justin Jefferson out of LSU, is presumably going to be a day one starter, but will he and Cousins have enough time to have perfect chemistry early on?

That remains to be seen, as reliable Smith Jr should get the call whether it be to line up in the slot, or on the outside as a wide receiver. And reliable he was. Smith Jr caught 36 of his 47 targets, and he was the player that we saw at Alabama, with great hands and consistent ability to get open downfield. 

What was surprising about Smith Jr. was his blocking: he wasn’t rated to be a very good blocker coming out of college, but in a run heavy Minnesota Vikings team, run-blocking is key to staying on the field. PFF rated Smith Jr as the 13th best run-blocking tight end and the 35th best pass blocking tight end out of 66 tight ends. Overall, he was rated the 30th best tight end.

Smith Jr.’s blocking coupled with his explosive, big-play potential should pave the path for him to eventually become the Vikings top tight end. He is certainly ready to go: “I feel like each game, it's definitely a step [forward] for me. As a rookie coming in, I had a lot on my plate at first just trying to come in and learn the offense. But Coach Stefanski and Pariani did an amazing job of getting me ready. Each week I just try to come with the mindset that I can't be stopped, and this offense can't be stopped. I try to have that mindset each day. And each game is more experience for me under my belt."