With Kyle Rudolph heading to the Giants this offseason after a decade-long run in Minnesota, much of the conversation about who will step up in his absence has been focused on a potential breakout for 2019 second-rounder Irv Smith Jr. in his third season. Smith, who turns 23 in August, has the athleticism and overall upside to see his numbers increase significantly this year as the No. 3 or 4 option in the Vikings' passing game behind Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and perhaps Dalvin Cook.
Let me be clear: I'm high on Smith's talent and think he'll be an important part of this 2021 offense. But I want to pump the brakes a bit on the expectations that he'll blow up and have a 2016 Rudolph-esque season with 700 or 800 receiving yards. Again, that's not because I don't think Smith is capable of doing so. It's all about the presence of another talented tight end on the roster who is going to be a notable target for Kirk Cousins, and that player is Tyler Conklin.
Last December, we got a taste of what life after Rudolph will be like when the big veteran missed the final four games of the season with a foot injury. These were the numbers for Smith and Conklin over that span:
- Smith: 203 snaps, 20 targets, 15 catches, 183 yards, 3 TDs, 68.5 PFF grade
- Conklin: 202 snaps, 23 targets, 15 catches, 168 yards, 1 TD, 62.6 PFF grade
They were almost exactly even on snaps and Conklin saw three more targets. Smith was a bit more productive with his targets, which makes sense because he's the more talented of the two, but it's not like there was a huge disparity there.
Because the Vikings use formations with multiple tight ends on the field with so much frequency, Conklin is going to be consistently involved in the offense. Last year, Minnesota had two or more TEs on the field on nearly 40 percent of its offensive snaps, which trailed only the Titans league-wide. With offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak taking over for his father Gary, there aren't expected to be any major changes made to that scheme and approach.
Here's the money quote from head coach Mike Zimmer, when he was asked earlier this month about Smith's role with Rudolph gone.
"Honestly, I don’t think it’s any bigger role for him whatsoever," Zimmer said. "I think it’s a bigger role for Tyler Conklin. He’s kind of emerged as a guy that’s moving upward and with those two guys, we have a lot of weapons there. Irv always has been able to do what he’s been able to do whether Kyle was here or not. We’re excited about these two young tight ends that we have."
Conklin, a 2018 fifth-round pick out of Central Michigan, is a good athlete (7.57 relative athletic score) with reliable hands. He doesn't have the upside of Smith, but he's three years older, has a bit more size, and is simply a very solid tight end.
Conklin had minimal regular season production in his career prior to the final four games of last season, but that's mostly because he was never higher than third on the depth chart. He's been impressive in preseason games and practices for a few years now. At this week's OTA practice, Conklin caught a touchdown from Cousins on the first play of red zone work and caught two straight passes to kick off a two-minute drill. The rapport is there between those two.
“Both of them have had a really strong eight practices, and it’s been fun to see what they’re continuing to be capable of," Cousins said of the Vikings' top two tight ends. "Irv and Conk, you see now with several years, how they’ve kind of emerged as these veterans that are now really confident and know what’s coming on the field."
I do think there are plenty of reasons to be excited about Smith's potential in 2021, both in real life and fantasy football. When the Vikings are in 11 or 21 personnel, meaning they have one tight end on the field, he'll usually be the one out there. Those two groupings made up roughly 55 percent of their offensive snaps last season. And when both TEs are on the field, Smith will run a higher percentage of routes, with Conklin staying in to pass protect more frequently (Conklin had 22 pass blocking snaps and Smith had just six during that four-game stretch without Rudolph).
Still, Conklin's presence should not be ignored. Given his ability and experience, along with the Vikings' tendency to play two tight ends at once, I see this shaking out as a 1A-1B dynamic this year, with either guy capable of leading the position in production in any given game.
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