As we count down the days until the Vikings' opener against the Packers on September 13th, InsideTheVikings will be previewing every single player on the roster. The amount of days remaining corresponds with the jersey number of the player being examined on that day. Today is June 21st, and there are 84 days until kickoff for the 2020 regular season. That means our next player preview looks at a player with a ton of potential.
Countdown to Vikings-Packers on September 13th: 84 Days
Player Preview: Irv Smith Jr. (No. 84, Tight End)
- College: Alabama
- Drafted: 2019 second round (50th overall)
- NFL experience: One year
- Age: 21 (Turns 22 in August)
- Size: 6'2", 242
- 2019 PFF Grade: 64.3
- Notable 2019 stats: 36 catches, 311 yards, 2 touchdowns
It's easy to see why Irv Smith Jr. is getting a ton of buzz as a breakout candidate in 2020. Between his age, athleticism, and projected role in the offense, there are plenty of reasons to anticipate a leap from the young tight end in his second season.
The numbers from Smith's rookie campaign don't jump off the page, but it's important to remember how young he is. Smith – who didn't turn 21 until the first preseason game last year – is younger than 23 of the 27 rookies the Vikings brought in this year. Considering he played just two seasons at Alabama, he's very much still developing as a player.
The Vikings knew Smith wasn't a finished product when they drafted him in the second round last year, but part of the appeal was that they felt they could put him in a great environment to maximize his potential. They had a veteran in Kyle Rudolph who could provide a shining example of what it takes to become a successful NFL tight end. They also had Brian Pariani, a longtime TEs coach who worked with Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe back in the late 1990s.
Given Smith's age and lack of experience, his rookie season played out about as expected, but what was encouraging was how he improved as the year went along. Unsurprisingly, there was a steep learning curve in training camp and the preseason as Smith adjusted to the complex requirements of playing tight end in the NFL. But he caught on pretty quickly, and showed some serious flashes of potential in a three-catch, 60-yard performance against the Raiders in Week 4.
“The beginning of camp, it was just a lot thrown at me," Smith said in September. "The more I got comfortable, getting reps with everything, I could go out there and play faster. Once you can go out there and play fast, be confident, the sky’s the limit.”
After having one game with multiple catches in the season's first four weeks, Smith had multiple catches in nine of the Vikings' last 11 games. He also caught his first two touchdown passes late in the season. Smith's playing time went up gradually; he went from playing 40 or 50 percent of the team's offensive snaps early in the year to 70 or 80 percent down the stretch.
Smith's athleticism gives the Vikings a different element at the tight end position. Rudolph is still a productive veteran and an elite red zone weapon, but he's past his prime and wasn't the most agile player to begin with. Smith is a smaller TE (6'2", 242) who can make players miss in the open field and win against man coverage.
In 2020, the torch might be passed from Rudolph to Smith in some respects. Rudolph wasn't far ahead of Smith from a production standpoint last year, catching 39 passes for 367 yards and six touchdowns. Both players can be considered starters in Gary Kubiak's offense, which uses multiple tight ends more than half of the time. But this could be the season where Smith surges ahead of Rudolph as the team's most dangerous pass-catching option at the position. For a detailed look at the Vikings' TE situation this season, check out my position preview.
With another offseason under his belt, 2020 could be a big year for Smith. With Stefon Diggs now in Buffalo, the opportunity is there for other players to emerge in the Vikings' offense. Justin Jefferson will get plenty of targets, but Smith's role as a pass-catcher should also grow significantly.
At the same time, it's important to remember that he will be just 22 years old this season and playing alongside Rudolph. A leap to stardom might not happen, and that's okay. As long as Smith continues to develop and take steps forward in his game, the Vikings will remain excited about his future.
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