Irv Smith Jr. Positioned for a Breakout Season

Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

With the NFL Draft just weeks away and social media timelines awash in mock drafts, it’s important to keep in mind that most of those drafted this spring won’t make a major splash in 2020. Some will be pressed into starting roles or see significant snap shares right off the bat, while most will gradually see their opportunities increase throughout the season.

Moreover, if COVID-19 postpones OTAs, training camps and/or the start to the NFL season, rookies will be even harder pressed to see significant action early.

Until the Vikings use their dozen or so picks — we’ll see how many Rick Spielman ultimately winds up with — in this year’s draft, second-year tight end Irv Smith Jr. will remain the youngest player on the roster. Smith, who was selected in the second round of last year’s draft (50th overall) out of Alabama turns 22 years old on Aug. 9, making him 51 days younger than Alexander Mattison, the Vikings’ third-round selection last spring (102nd overall).

Smith is a prime example of a player who was drafted early, flashed talent in the preseason, yet was gradually worked into the mix as a rookie. Obviously, the Vikings already had a very good tight end in Kyle Rudolph, so they had the luxury of easing Smith into action, even though the team employs a lot of 12 personnel groupings.

Smith didn’t play more than 50 percent of the offensive snaps in his first four games as a rookie. He didn’t see 60 percent of the snaps until Week 8, but then from Week 8 through Week 16, he played anywhere from 61 percent to 85 percent of the Vikings’ offensive snaps.

With the increase in playing time, Smith started showing up in the box score. While he started catching the eye of NFL observers, he didn’t post eye-popping numbers overall. In Week 9 against Kansas City, he had four receptions on six targets and in Week 10 against Dallas, he had five receptions on six targets. In Week 11, Smith scored his first NFL touchdown against Denver. Then he scored again in Week 15 on a nifty, back-of-the-end-zone nab against the Chargers.

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His advertised talent for getting open downfield and good hands was apparent early on. What came as a bit of a surprise, however, was his blocking ability.

Pro Football Focus graded Smith as the 13th-best run-blocking tight end and 35th-best pass-blocking tight end among the 66 NFL tight ends who played 300 or more snaps in 2019. Overall, PFF graded Smith as their 30th tight end last season – 13 spots behind Rudolph. Not bad for a 21-year-old rookie. Blocking like that will keep Smith on the field.

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As you likely have heard by now, Irv Jr. is the son of Irv Smith, who played tight end in the NFL from 1993-99 for the Saints, 49ers and Browns. The second-generation talent obviously has his father’s football DNA. Though a little reluctant to make the lofty comparison, Irv Jr. reminds yours truly of the father of another second-generation NFL player – Saints Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan.

Vikings fans of a certain generation know his dad well: tight end Steve Jordan, who was inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor last October.

The only hesitation in making a comparison between Smith and Jordan, frankly, is that those are mighty big purple shoes to fill. Jordan appeared in six straight Pro Bowls from 1986-91 and ranks third in Vikings history in receptions (498) behind only Cris Carter (1,004) and Randy Moss (587). In terms of receivers to play tight end, Jordan is the best in franchise history. Note: with 425 career receptions, Rudolph still needs 74 to pass him.

Even so, it’s hard to miss the comparison to Jordan, who only caught 18 total passes his first two seasons as a 21- and 22-year-old. Unlike Smith, Jordan was a late draft pick, going in the seventh round (179th overall) of the 1982 NFL Draft out of Brown. However, the size and skill set are quite similar to these old eyes. Smith goes 6-foor-2, 242 while Jordan measured 6-foot-3, 236. Neither fits the mold of a lumbering tight end, with both being adept at getting open downfield, catching passes and blocking more effectively than one might think.

Smith might not be primed for the same kind of Pro Bowl run that Jordan enjoyed – though the Vikings would certainly take it — but he’ll certainly have the opportunity to catch more passes in 2020 and make a sizable impact on the Vikings’ offense that no longer has Stefon Diggs. Look for Smith to get a bigger target share regardless of who winds up lining up across from Adam Thielen as the Vikings’ second wide receiver.

He’ll be a fan favorite soon if he isn’t already.

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