The big wave of free agency has come and gone in the NFL offseason, and the draft is in the books. For the Minnesota Vikings, many needs were clear, and they have addressed most of them in one way or another. But they have ignored one shortcoming — the tight end spot. It appears that the Vikings will be relying heavily on Irv Smith Jr., which invites plenty of risk.
Kyle Rudolph is a free agent, but he isn’t walking through that door in Eagan. Let’s say, hypothetically, that he did. It wouldn’t answer the abundant questions surrounding the tight end spot for Minnesota at the moment.
Sitting at No. 12 in the NFL draft, many assumed the Vikings would go safety or cornerback. Others wanted a wide receiver.
There was no Kyle Pitts-type prospect in this draft. Thus there was no chance of the Vikings — or anyone for that matter — taking a tight end in the first round. Still, it’s surprising that Minnesota let the draft glide by without taking a flier on a tight end.
Irv Smith Jr. missed the entire 2021 season due to injury, and injuries are not a foreign concept to the young tight end that the Vikings used a second-round selection on in 2019.
Entering his fourth year, Smith has compiled only 66 receptions for 676 yards and seven touchdowns. However, it appears that Minnesota is ready to roll the dice on Smith as the clear-cut No. 1 tight end on the depth chart. Teams can’t predict injuries, but Smith’s history seemingly puts them at a higher risk. That’s the first hurdle for the Vikings after investing so heavily in the former Alabama standout.
The second hurdle is about production.
Through three years, Smith has shown very little to prove he can top a depth chart. The numbers don’t jump out on the page, and the highlight reel doesn’t wow. While it is possible that Smith could stay healthy in 2022 and produce at a high level, the odds of that happening seem very low.
Minnesota’s decision to not address the situation (unless you count using a seventh-round pick on Nick Muse) is peculiar, to say the least. Either the Vikings really believe in Smith’s potential, or they aren’t prioritizing the position. It is still possible they’re looking to add a veteran tight end in free agency.
Tyler Conklin posted 61 receptions for 593 yards and three touchdowns in 2021. He wasn’t some unstoppable force, but he had a very solid year at tight end for the Vikings. His numbers almost mimic what Smith has piled up in his entire career.
But Conklin is gone to the New York Jets, and Minnesota’s stable of tight ends is emptier than ever. Investing in Smith but keeping Conklin as a security blanket would have left Vikings fans feeling a lot more comfortable. Instead, mystery looms.
The best-case scenario for the Vikings is that the runway is cleared for Irv Smith Jr. in 2022, and he excels. If that turns out to be the case, Minnesota’s offense becomes a hell of a lot more dangerous.
That isn’t what the opposition will plan for, though.
Most teams will prepare for Jefferson, Thielen, and Dalvin Cook. If Minnesota has dreams of taking this offense to the next level, they’ll need a tight end who can stretch the field and create mismatches for opposing defenses. On paper, Smith has the tools to be that guy, but it hasn’t been on display in his first three seasons.
Perhaps the Vikings aren’t done looking at the tight end spot. That might be wise. However, if they plan on barrel-rolling into the 2022 campaign with Irv Smith Jr. and no other viable option at tight end, they’ll be taking a big risk that could backfire quickly.