Just over a year ago, Irv Smith Jr. was “swimming,” according to then-offensive consultant Gary Kubiak. Smith, a second-round pick, was 20 years old and trying to pick up the complexities of Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski’s offense.
“We’ll catch him up,” Kubiak said at the time.
While rookie wide receivers routinely enter the league and shine, rookie tight ends historically have a harder time. Since the turn of the century, only six tight ends taken in the first or second round have recorded 500 or more yards in their debut season, amounting to just over 30 yards per game.
With that standard in mind, many chalked Smith’s rookie season up to a success despite only gaining 311 yards with a pair of touchdown catches, but he displayed a clear positive trajectory. In the team’s final 10 games, Smith had multiple catches in all but two of them, and he graded out as a respectable blocker — 17th best in the run game, per Pro Football Focus, which allowed the Vikings to spell Kyle Rudolph with Smith.
Rudolph, now the longest tenured Vikings player in his 10th year with the club, is aging but still effective. Many of his seven touchdowns last season came either in big moments or in acrobatic fashion, including his game-winning catch in the playoffs at New Orleans. His yardage, though, barely exceeded Smith’s (367 vs. 311), as did his yards per route run metric (1.09 vs. 1.02). With another year under Smith’s belt, it’s believable that he could be the Vikings’ most productive tight end in 2020. The second year often represents the greatest leap for great tight ends.
Since 2000, only 10 tight ends have logged an 800-yard season in their second year: Todd Heap, Mark Andrews, Travis Kelce, Kellen Winslow Jr., Aaron Hernandez, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and George Kittle. Of them, seven were drafted in the first three rounds, but only four exceeded the 500-yard mark as a rookie. The first-to-second-year jump is often dramatic, even for the best of the best.
And that brings us back to Smith. Is it his turn to make the leap?
“I thought Irv did unbelievable last year as a rookie,” said Rudolph, “a guy that came in right away, always knew his assignment. Gary and those guys were moving him all over the place right away trying to see how much he could grasp. At times, like most rookies, you get a little lost, but as we went in week after week it just seemed as if his role got bigger and bigger, and he always knew what he was doing. There’s always a higher comfort level going into Year 2 because you’ve been through everything, you’ve seen everything, you’re not a rookie anymore, so you’re not treated like a rookie anymore.”
Smith may be the offensive weapon nobody’s talking about. Adam Thielen is the established star. Justin Jefferson is the rising rookie. Dalvin Cook is the explosive running back. Rudolph is the red zone threat. But on a team that rarely has fewer than two tight ends on the field — the Vikings were second in “12” personnel formations last year — Smith should see as much playing time as the Vikings’ third or fourth receivers.
“We ask Irv to play a lot of spots for us,” said Kubiak. “Tight end, the F position, those wideout positions. Irv’s really settled down, he understands schematically what we’re trying to do, how we call things. I can do a lot of things with him. He can go in and give Rudy a break in the run game. He’s much improved in those types of things.”
The blocking may very well be the key for Smith to realize his true potential because it’s the trait that will earn him opportunities. It’s a skill that Rudolph took years to hone, and his shortcomings in that area earned him criticism over the years. But that criticism was also instructive as it magnified the importance of blocking at the tight end position, which is knowledge Rudolph can pass down.
Rarely does Smith get discussed by a coach or teammate without mention of his improved blocking. Though Smith got off to a relatively strong start as a blocker in Year 1, head coach Mike Zimmer believes there’s better in store in Year 2.
“I feel like Irv has grown quite a bit, as far as just watching him out there at practice and running routes, and his blocking and different things that we’re trying to do with him,” Zimmer said. “Again, each guy is different. Some guys become better blockers their second year. Some guys understand route recognition and how to set up defenders better than other guys.”
Kubiak has credited Rudolph with having a big influence on Smith. Both are second-round picks who carried high expectations. Rudolph carved out a niche as a sure-handed touchdown machine, but he has never amassed large yardage totals save for his career-best 2016 season where he earned 840 yards on 132 targets. Rudolph gradually learned how to do the dirty work as an extra blocker, which helped extend his career. If Smith, who possesses athleticism superior to Rudolph, can pick up those nuances at an earlier age, his potential could skyrocket.
“Not many guys get to go sit in a room with a guy like Kyle and take their baby steps, so to speak, looking at a player like that,” Kubiak said. “Irv has benefitted from that.”
Time to see what Smith’s Year 2 looks like.