Many Minnesota Vikings players have something to prove in 2022, but tight end Irv Smith Jr. is near the top of the list. After being selected in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Smith was supposed to be a more athletic upgrade over Kyle Rudolph. But Smith hasn’t broken out due to injuries and his development as a prospect.
The Vikings need Smith to realize his potential this season. But if that happens, he will command a lucrative deal heading into free agency. There’s also the cap situation, which can’t accommodate another big contract. Therefore, a Smith breakout creates more questions than answers, and it starts by examining the chances of a breakout season.
When the Vikings drafted Smith, he was the latest prospect in the Rick Spielman’s quest to find a “move” tight end. Between 2015 and 2019, the Vikings drafted at least one tight end, but Tyler Conklin was the only player to carve out a notable role.
Smith was different than the other prospects. He was the highest-drafted prospect and had a solid record of production at Alabama. At age 20, Smith had a level of upside that the other draft picks lacked, leading many to believe the Vikings were sitting on a gold mine.
Looking back, there was cause for concern. At the combine, Smith showed out on the 40-yard dash (4.63 seconds), but he didn’t post elite scores in any other drills. Smith’s relative athletic score (RAS) was actually lower than Rudolph’s. If anything, it would take some time for him to carve out a role.
MockDraftable’s comparisons were also less than flattering. Of his top matches, only Mark Andrews has gone on to have a successful career. The Baltimore Ravens thought Hayden Hurst (who also appears on this list) was a better prospect.
Still, Smith was a player who could win in the right scheme. During his junior year at Alabama, Smith reaped the benefit of playing in an offense that included Tua Tagovailoa, Jaylen Waddle, Jerry Jeudy, and Henry Ruggs III. All that talent allowed Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to scheme Smith in catch-and-run situations, which allowed him to rack up 16.1 yards per catch and build a reputation as a big-play threat.
It can be argued that Smith has had an equally impressive supporting cast in Minnesota. But the scheme may not have been a fit.
In 2019, Kevin Stefanski deployed a run-base attack that Rudolph criticized for asking him to block too much. The same thing happened in 2020 when Gary Kubiak ran the offense through Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen as opposed to the bigger, slower tight ends.
Minnesota’s decision to move on from Rudolph in March 2021 was supposed to allow Smith to break out. But groin and back injuries hampered him for most of the 2020 season, and Mike Zimmer’s crusade for a preseason touchdown came at the cost of a torn meniscus.
With just 13 games played over the past two seasons, there’s a concern about Smith’s durability. However, he participated during mandatory minicamp and should benefit from Kevin O’Connell’s scheme, which produced 85 targets for Tyler Higbee last season.
If Smith can get that workload, there’s a good chance that the Vikings will be going to the negotiating table next spring. A second-round pick, Smith’s contract doesn’t carry the fifth-year option that first-rounders receive. While the Vikings probably wouldn’t have picked up that option, it would have been nice to have.
Instead, Minnesota will probably dive into the world of tight-end contracts. If Smith reaches Mike Clay’s projection of 53 catches for 520 yards and five touchdowns, his best contractual comparison is New England Patriots tight end Jonnu Smith.
Smith never put up game-changing numbers with the Tennessee Titans, but the Patriots desperately needed a tight end. They saw enough in Smith’s potential to give him a 4-year, $50 million contract, including $31.25 million guaranteed.
With the second-most guaranteed money for a tight end, that demand could give the Vikings sticker shock and lead Minnesota to look for a younger, cheaper alternative.
Next year’s class doesn’t have many big names. But Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer projects as the top player and has a more similar athletic profile (6’5”, 251 lbs.) to Higbee (6’6”, 255 lbs.). Drafting Mayer could help O’Connell transition into something similar to what the Los Angeles Rams use and allow the Vikings to use more three-receiver sets.
The free-agent market could also help land a steady veteran like Mike Gesicki, Dalton Schultz, or Austin Hooper. Like most positions, similar production with less cost helps the Vikings sink more money into more glaring needs, such as a receiver who may ask for $40 million next spring.
Either way, it makes Smith one of the most intriguing players on the Vikings. If he blows up, he may just play himself out of Minnesota’s price range. If he has a modest season, they’ll have to think long and hard about whether he’s worth the price to bring him back.