Heading into this season, second-year tight end Irv Smith Jr. was a popular choice as a potential breakout player for the Vikings. If you made a list of Vikings who could emerge in 2020, chances are he was on it. The thought was that with a full year of experience under his belt, the 22-year-old Alabama product would build on his 300-yard, two-touchdown rookie campaign. After all, Kyle Rudolph is on the wrong side of 30 and Stefon Diggs' departure created room for other players to step up in the passing game.
And yet, it hasn't happened at all during the first four games of the year. Despite playing the same amount as he did last year, Smith has just two catches for 14 yards on six targets thus far. That's five fewer receptions and 50 fewer yards than he had at the one-quarter mark a year ago, and he was still learning the offense at that point.
Not only has Smith not gotten going as a receiver, he simply hasn't been good. Out of 65 qualified tight ends, the 2019 second-round pick ranks 64th in Pro Football Focus's grades. He's tied for the team lead with three penalties – including two for illegal blocks – and has allowed two pressures on eight pass-blocking snaps.
Smith's most productive game as a receiver actually came in Week 1, when he had one catch for 11 yards. He had a rough game in Week 2, catching just one of his four targets for three yards. In that game, Smith had a 19-yard gain called back due to a questionable offensive pass interference call and dropped what would have been a 27-yard catch after taking a big hit from Colts safety Julian Blackmon. Over the past two weeks, he has one target and zero receptions, with his name mainly coming up for an illegal block that hurt the Vikings on their final possession against the Titans.
It's not like he hasn't been out there. Smith has played between 31 and 41 snaps in every game, replicating his 60 percent mark from last season. And he's running roughly 16 routes per game, per PFF, meaning he's not just being used as a blocker.
Maybe there haven't been many plays drawn up for him. Maybe Kirk Cousins isn't looking at him much when going through his reads. Maybe he just isn't getting open. Whatever the reason might be, the targets and receptions haven't been there.
Mike Zimmer was asked about Smith's lack of involvement this week and basically said that it's just the way things have happened to play out this year.
“I think each week is different," Zimmer said. "Kyle [Rudolph] got a couple balls last week, Irv didn’t get any. There were some plays called for him, and sometimes they just get them played. The first third down of the game, he had a chance to get a ball and the guy grabbed him around the waist and they didn’t call a penalty. There’s a lot of things like that happen throughout the game, but that was one that he had a chance to get a ball on. And there was another one that there was a route called for him, and the linebacker kind of played a different coverage. So it’s just the way the game plays out sometimes.”
In a recent interview with KFAN radio, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak took the blame for Smith's slow start and pledged to make him a bigger part of the offense going forward.
“We gotta get the ball in Irv’s hands," Kubiak said, per Sean Borman. "That’s on me. He’s playing hard. Tried to call his number a few times [against the Texans], it didn’t happen, but I think it will happen. He’s doing his job. I love Irv ... we’ll try to get him more involved.”
There are ways the Vikings can try to get Smith going. They could dial his number on a screen pass to get the athletic tight end the ball in space. They could have Smith line up in the slot more often – he's only lined up there on 21 of his 143 snaps – and have him run a wider variety of routes.
Getting Smith more involved would give the Vikings another weapon for Cousins in the passing game. This offense is clearly going to be centered around Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, and Justin Jefferson, but there's room for other players to factor into the equation. Rudolph has six catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. Even Bisi Johnson and Alexander Mattison have more receiving yards than Smith.
The Vikings took Smith in the second round last year for a reason. They believed he could be their future at the tight end position while also being a big part of the present with his athleticism. He has the size, speed, and agility to be a difficult matchup for opposing linebackers and DBs, and made plenty of plays in training camp. It just hasn't come together yet during the regular season.
Given Rudolph's contract situation, it's possible the team could look to move on from the veteran in 2021. But if that's going to happen, they'll need to see more from Smith over the final 12 games of the year that suggests he's ready and able to take on a much bigger role.
It's been a slow start to the season for Smith, but there's plenty of time for him to get back on track and make his presence felt in this offense.
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