When the Minnesota Vikings used their second-round pick on Alabama tight end Irv Smith Jr. in 2019 there was a lot of optimism for what he could do in their offense. While he spent his first two years behind veteran Kyle Rudolph, the Vikings’ utilization of a two tight end set as their base personnel has allowed for a lot of playing time for the athletic, young tight end.
With limited cap space this offseason, the Vikings will be forced to move on from some longtime veteran contributors — and Rudolph is near the top of the list. Therefore, Smith will have to show he can consistently play at a high level.
Last year he missed three games due to a groin injury, which occurred during a touchdown celebration, but Smith was able to increase his production in yards (365) and touchdowns (5), despite having six fewer catches than in his rookie season. He proved his value throughout the course of the season as a target who could exploit both the deep and intermediate holes in zone coverage.
Smith proved to be a matchup nightmare against slower linebackers, showcasing his incredible athleticism to shake free of them and extend the play to gain yards after the catch. In the Vikings’ primetime game against the Seattle Seahawks, Smith recorded 64 yards and was able to shake coverage from both safeties and linebackers.
At his best, he is an incredible tight end who can use both his athleticism and large frame to make impressive catches, but he has been inconsistent so far throughout his career. Smith wasn’t targeted often in the first four weeks of last season, even when the offense was forced to abandon the run. His absence from the game plan was evident to almost everyone, and it wasn’t apparent why he wasn’t more involved in the offense.
As the season went on, he played better and was more involved in the offense, but he was still prone to the occasional awful game. For example, in the second matchup against the Chicago Bears, Smith dropped a pass in the end zone right before halftime and forced the Vikings to take a field goal instead of getting a much-needed touchdown that could have kept them in the game. It’s unfair to blame the 33-27 loss at U.S. Bank Stadium on one drop, but Chicago entered halftime with a 20-10 lead and Minnesota ended up losing a game that could have helped vault them into the playoffs.
The Vikings need to add a bona fide third receiver who can complement both Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. But if they are unable to land anyone who is an improvement over either Chad Beebe or Olabisi Johnson, Smith will have to step into that role. The value of tight ends has been decreasing over the years, but there are still players like Travis Kelce who have been able to adapt the position and dominate over the middle of the field. Smith needs to become a version of that.
It’s unfair to project such high hopes onto Smith, who is still trying to find his role in the offense. But as we enter next season, he could benefit from being an overlooked man as defenses key in on the elite wideouts and running backs, allowing him to wreak havoc.