For all the additions the Minnesota Vikings have made this offseason, one group has remained conspicuously unimproved. The Vikings’ wide receiver corps is led by Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson. Everyone can enjoy that, but the rest of the room is a conglomeration of cast-offs and draft rejects. The only additions the Vikings made were Ihmir Smith-Marsette in the fifth round and a handful of undrafted rookies. Chad Beebe and Olabisi Johnson will compete for that third spot for the third year in a row.
That’s not an inspiring group. Fans are scratching their heads at the Vikings’ general inaction to improve it. They don’t need to spring for a top-of-the-market option at $18 million per year, but they didn’t even bring in their annual reclamation project. While Kendall Wright, Jordan Taylor, and Tajae Sharpe didn’t work out, at least they were darts at the board.
The explanation could be a plan to rely heavily on two tight ends. The Vikings used at least one tight end on all but 12 plays in 2020. Nobody put fewer wide receivers on the field than they did. So it stands to reason that they’d resolve to spend less on wide receivers. But should the Vikings actually want to be the most receiver-poor team in the league?
The problem with that should be obvious: It makes the Vikings slow. Irv Smith Jr. is fast for a tight end but still ran a worse 40-yard dash (4.63) than the notoriously slow Laquon Treadwell (4.61). Slower tight ends run shorter routes. Shorter routes gain fewer yards. If you can’t run as many wide receiver routes, your offense may be suffocating itself. In exchange, however, you get more size. That forces defenses to choose between a size disadvantage or a speed disadvantage. Smith may not leave cornerbacks in the dust, but if they can’t cover him with a linebacker, they’ll have to expose themselves to something else.
When Kyle Rudolph injured his foot in Week 13 last year, the Vikings were ushered into a test scenario for an Irv Smith–Tyler Conklin tight end pairing. Instead of a classic “11” personnel setup, the Vikings had to figure out how to move the ball with two speedy tight ends. They were comfortable keeping Rudolph in to block and run stick routes, but Conklin’s presence demanded a different game plan. What they did with those game plans offers us a preview of what they might do next year.
In those games, Smith’s role expanded not in volume but in variety. Smith always played in the majority of snaps per game, but after Rudolph left, he moved around the formation more. Smith took 131 snaps from classic tight end alignments and 68 snaps from classic wide receiver alignments in those December games. That’s about a 65-35 split and shows the varied approach the Vikings might take.
That could have more to do with Tyler Conklin than Irv Smith. A pairing of Smith and Conklin will look different than a pairing of Smith and Rudolph because of the difference in skillset. Conklin is faster but a worse blocker, which encourages more spread-out, isolated concepts. As the month wore on, Smith’s targets came from increasingly varied places.
It can often be useful to split a tight end out wide because of how it stresses the defense’s alignments. If they keep a cornerback on Smith, that means there is a wide receiver somewhere with a mismatch. If they put a linebacker out there, that’s one less linebacker in the box. It can also be a man-zone indicator to watch how the defense reacts.
Every tight end splits out wide sometimes. Sometimes they’ll only motion outside to gather that man-zone indicator, then motion back inside. Rudolph did that often since classic boundary receiving assignments weren’t exactly a fit with his skill set. The problem is if the defense calls your bluff, you may not get information in the first place. But if Kyle Rudolph gets a one-on-one matchup with Marshon Lattimore, at least you wasted Marshon Lattimore.
The Vikings didn’t shy away from giving Smith those wide receiver assignments. He ran concepts meant to stretch the deep part of the field in conjunction with Tyler Conklin, just like a wide receiver would. In those December weeks, Smith’s average depth of target was 9.4 yards, just below Justin Jefferson (9.6) and above Adam Thielen (8.7). Put another way, the classic disadvantages of a conservative tight end-heavy approach didn’t apply. The Vikings threw it just as deep to the bigger guy instead.
One example came in the experimental game against the Detroit Lions in week 17. Conklin and Smith ran a post-corner concept that was meant to stress the deep safety. Justin Jefferson wasn’t even on the field for this rep, and Adam Thielen was in an isolated position. This concept was meant to utilize the speed of Smith and Conklin, not hide a lack of it. The play was ultimately rushed thanks to some pressure (more on that here), and Cousins had to throw before the safety committed to the conflict.
Teams responded to this in varied ways. The New Orleans Saints opted for man-to-man coverage with C.J. Gardner-Johnson, with varied results. The Lions opted for a zone approach that matched Smith up with slower linebackers. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers tried to keep Smith in front of them and rally for a tackle. In all cases, it took the defense out of its comfort zone.
Teams wouldn’t respond to this with appropriate speed unless that speed came with the appropriate size. Since the next defensive back on the field is usually a small nickel corner, that’s rarely the case. So the Vikings have a relatively unique strategy that brings their opponents out of their carefully curated nickel packages and attacks their slower packages with fast tight ends. There’s plenty of precedent for that approach, but it remains to be seen if it’s better than simply going three-wide and attacking.
Whether to emulate the 2018 Los Angeles Rams with a three-wide approach or the 2019 San Francisco 49ers with a heavier approach is a differentiating factor that has more to do with personnel than preference. But the Vikings chose personnel based on that preference. Functionally, Irv Smith is the third wide receiver. He won’t look like that, but he’ll be used that way. At the end of the day, a 15-yard pass is a 15-yard pass, however the Vikings get there. We just have to find out if it’s wise to go outside the box.