EAGAN — When Irv Smith Jr. suffered a season-ending injury during the Minnesota Vikings’ final preseason game, the team was crushed to see him lost for the year. Prior to getting hurt, Smith Jr. made a strong case for having the single best performance by any Viking during training camp. To make matters worse, 2021 would have marked his first opportunity as TE1 following the exit of long-time tight end Kyle Rudolph.
The Vikings’ approach to the offseason made it clear they are betting on Smith Jr. getting right back to where he left off.
“I know there were a lot of folks excited about him last fall before that injury happened,” head coach Kevin O’Connell said on Wednesday.
This week, Smith Jr. participated in some light 11-on-11 work, appearing to be ahead of the schedule he laid out when speaking to media earlier this offseason.
“Little by little, every single day, doing more and more,” O’Connell said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to get him into some of those competitive 7-on-7s in the not-too-distant future.”
Though he is able to get on the field, the Vikings’ head coach is looking more at Smith Jr.’s ability to grasp what he wants to do with the scheme than the routes he’s running — at least for the spring.
“Mentally we’ve been asking a lot out of Irv and, really, all of our tight ends, and the multiplicity in which we line up, we operate, we do different things,” O’Connell said.
While Smith Jr. will be asked to handle concepts that are different from the previous regime, moving around and taking on a myriad of roles isn’t all that new for him. In college at Alabama his versatility caught the eye of the Vikings before the 2019 draft. When he was worked into the lineup alongside Rudolph during his first two seasons, Smith Jr. played all over the field. Out of 545 snaps in 2020, Smith Jr. lined up in the slot 102 times, outside 48 times and evenly split his inline snaps between the left and right side (per PFF).
“I think he’s ready to kind of absorb all this and be in a position to go play fast, go play with a bunch of confidence that he’s going to be a major part of what we do,” O’Connell said. “It’s just making sure that we’re doing it in a really responsible way as he continues to progress back.”
In his first two seasons, Smith Jr. was an efficient weapon for the Vikings. Kirk Cousins completed 75.6% of passes thrown in his direction and produced a 124.5 quarterback rating on 87 throws his way. This year the offense may rely on him to take on the same target share of his first two seasons combined or more.
Because of his quickness and lack of sheer size, Smith Jr. has been labeled as a “receiving tight end.” And that has largely been the case. He only stayed in as a pass blocker on 12% of pass plays he was on the field for and he graded 59th of 86 run blockers by PFF in 2020.
O’Connell said that despite the adaptations at the tight end position to emphasize receiving and downfield passing elements around the NFL, he sees blocking as a key part of the job.
“I still think, no matter how much it’s evolved, I still think the element of being a three-down tight end and having a role in the run game, being able to protect when we want to max protect and kind of have those guys in there,” O’Connell said. “Schematically, there’s only so many things you can do. But when you do have a guy that can be a three-down, impact player, meaning on third down you can target them as the first progression but on first down you can run a run right behind them, knowing that they can do all those things. That’s ultimately where I think the position is still.”
The Vikings may not be asking Smith Jr. to do all the blocking considering they added Johnny Mundt and kept Ben Ellefson on the roster but the lack of a clear TE2 addition leaves little doubt that they’ll be asking him to be everything under O’Connell. And the months leading up to training camp will be vital, even if he isn’t 100% back yet.
“I think for Irv, this whole spring is a great example of a player figuring out where he is coming off his injury but also understanding that he can really get a lot out of every day, knowing that he’s preparing himself for when he is 100 percent and ready to go,” O’Connell said.