Having consistency in any form is a luxury in sports. Consistency can come from a single player or even a position group, and often it gets taken for granted.
For the Vikings, consistency is not a word you’d first associate with the team. Minnesota is essentially on the “every other year plan” when it comes to success (is that consistent?), and over the last decade, they have had 10 different quarterbacks start a game.
Amongst all of this, though, one position group has remained the model of consistency: the tight ends.
Minnesota hasn’t had a transcendent player like Travis Kelce, but they’ve had very solid contributors. It started with Visanthe Shiancoe in the late 2000s. Then came Kyle Rudolph, who spent his entire 10-year career with the Vikings before his release in March.
The proverbial baton is now set to be handed off again, this time to Irv Smith Jr. The Vikings drafted him out of Alabama in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and while coaches have been bullish on him since his arrival, he’s never seen the work necessary to become a star TE.
This hasn’t stopped Smith from producing on the field. In his first two seasons, he’s caught 66 balls for 676 yards and seven touchdowns. His production doesn’t necessarily jump off the page there, but it’s pretty impressive given his usage.
In his 29 career games, Smith has seen at least 80% of the team’s snaps on offense four times. In those four games, Smith has scored three touchdowns. For reference, Rudolph averaged at least 80% of the team’s snaps throughout a full season five times. Given that Rudolph was on the roster for Smith’s first two seasons, this isn’t all that surprising. But what it does showcase is that Smith isn’t even close to reaching his potential.
Smith has only dropped two passes in his career and last season recorded a rating of 134.4 on passes in which he was targeted. If you want to talk about a model of consistency, Smith has been the guy.
With all those numbers thrown out there, it seems like Smith will be an easy plug-in for Rudolph, and we can all rest easy that the Vikings’ TE legacy will continue, right?
Well, not exactly, and that may actually be a good thing.
First off, Smith is more athletic than Rudolph. The Bama product ran a 4.63 40-yard dash in the combine. Rudolph ran a 4.83. The Vikings can’t afford to try and play Smith in the offense like they played Rudolph.
Instead of solely running five-yard out routes and maybe a couple of posts, new offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak has to work on getting Smith downfield with favorable matchups. Defenses already have to worry about Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, so Smith should have opportunities against undersized corners and slower linebackers.
The Vikings could even consider implementing Smith in motion as the Kansas City Chiefs have done with Kelce. The fact of the matter is, when the ball gets in his hands, he makes good things happen. This isn’t all that surprising, though, as Smith came into the league as a receiving threat. The big knock on him was his abilities as a blocker.
Well, it looks like that might not be a knock on him any longer. Smith has become much more seasoned, especially in the run game, and was extremely important in the success of Dalvin Cook last season. He checks both the receiving and the blocking box, so at least on paper, it looks like he’s ready for a breakout campaign. It’s not a question of whether or not Smith has the abilities to take his game to the next level; it’s a question of the offensive play calling.
Unfortunately, that area largely remains a question. Sure, Kubiak is likely to take an extreme amount of inspiration from his father, but nobody knows yet.
Next season will either go one of two ways. The first and most beneficial for Mr. Smith’s bank account would be that the Vikings give a full-time receiving role to the TE. A lot of the talk this offseason has surrounded who Minnesota’s WR3 will be, but Smith could essentially take that role from a usage standpoint if Kubiak wanted.
Or the coaches could utilize him in the same way they have in the last two seasons. He’s guaranteed to see a usage uptick with Rudolph gone, but if they don’t use him correctly, it’ll be all for naught.
For my money, Smith is a stud waiting to break out. At this point, it seems his game has been refined since his days with Nick Saban, and the only thing truly holding him back is the play calling. So, for the sake of all that’s good and holy, let’s hope that Kubiak and the rest of the Vikings’ coaching staff see that too.