Vikings Tight Ends Preview: Expect Irv Smith Jr.'s Role to Increase in Year Two
With the NFL Draft in the rearview mirror, we're going to take an early look at each position on the Vikings' roster. We'll break down any notable competitions for certain roles or roster spots before making a prediction on who makes the 53-man roster, who winds up on the practice squad, and who will be continuing their football career elsewhere. Next up are the tight ends, where there could be a passing of the torch in 2020.
The last time Kyle Rudolph stayed healthy for a full season and didn't lead Vikings tight ends in receiving yards was back in 2011, his rookie year. The second-round pick out of Notre Dame broke out with 493 yards and nine touchdowns in 2012, and despite missing half of the season in both 2013 and 2014, Rudolph has been the Vikings' unquestioned No. 1 tight end ever since.
There's a solid chance that streak comes to an end in 2020. The Vikings drafted Irv Smith Jr. out of Alabama in the second round last year with the idea that he would eventually take over as the top guy at that position. Right away, Smith's presence on the roster was part of the reason why Rudolph had his least-productive season in five years; after averaging 625 receiving yards per year from 2015 to 2018, Rudolph only managed 367 in 2019. Smith wasn't far behind him at 311.
With the two players being on different sides of their prime, there's a real possibility that we will see the torch passed from one tight end to another this year. Rudolph is entering his 10th NFL season and will turn 31 in November. Smith turns 22 in August. He's the future at the position for the Vikings, and it's a future that could become the present as soon as this year.
Rudolph isn't going to go away just yet. He signed a four-year, $36 million contract extension last offseason that could keep him in Minnesota through the 2023 season, though the Vikings can get out of that deal without much dead money starting in 2021. The 6'6" Rudolph is still a major threat in the red zone, as his six touchdown receptions last year – not including the game-winner to beat the Saints in the playoffs – gave him 47 for his career. That's by far the most by a tight end in Vikings history, and fifth-most among all players. Rudolph could pass Sammy White (50) and Anthony Carter (52) to move into third place on the franchise receiving TDs leaderboard this year. His ability as a blocker is another reason why he'll maintain a sizable role in 2020.
But Smith's time is coming. His snap counts increased throughout his rookie season, going from the 40/50 percent range in the first half to 70 and 80 percent down the stretch. Smith brings a different level of quickness and agility with the ball in his hands than Rudolph does. He's a little smaller at 6'2", 240 pounds, and ran an impressive 4.63 40 at the 2019 combine. Rudolph has great hands, but he's not going to make anyone miss in the open field at this stage of his career. Luckily for both, Gary Kubiak's offense frequently uses multiple tight ends at once. Per Sharp Football Stats, the Vikings had at least two tight ends on the field during 54 percent of their snaps last season; only the Eagles (58 percent) did so more often.
Smith actually graded out better as a blocker than Rudolph did, according to Pro Football Focus, which is a good sign for his ability to become a full-time player in the coming seasons. Here's a complete comparison of the two tight ends from last season.
PFF receiving grade
PFF run-blocking grade
PFF pass-blocking grade
Irv Smith Jr.
Smith ran a route on 53 percent of his snaps, compared to 45 percent for Rudolph, which shows that the Vikings are aware of his upside as a receiver. With Stefon Diggs out of the equation and a full year in the system under his belt, the opportunity is there for Smith's targets to increase significantly in 2020. I'd imagine that Rudolph and Smith will wind up with fairly even snap counts next year, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if Smith is the more productive receiver.
After the top two, there's room for occasional playing time for a third tight end. With David Morgan injured last year, that role went to 2018 fifth-round pick Tyler Conklin. Morgan was released this offseason after failing a physical, so Conklin is the favorite to retain that job. He'll get some competition from Brandon Dillon, who made the initial 2019 53-man roster as an undrafted free agent after impressing in the preseason. Dillon spent the vast majority of last season on the practice squad. The Vikings also signed a UDFA tight end this year in Pitt's Nakia Griffin-Stewart.
Starters: Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith Jr.
Backup: Tyler Conklin
Practice squad: Brandon Dillon
Cut: Nakia Griffin-Stewart
I listed both Rudolph and Smith as starters because the Vikings use two tight ends so often. I think Conklin beats out Dillon for the third tight end job, but I wouldn't be surprised to see that competition go the other way, considering how good Dillon looked in the preseason last year. If he does lose that battle, he'll likely spend another year on the practice squad unless someone gets hurt.
Other post-draft position previews
- Quarterbacks: Sorting Out the Three-Man Backup Competition
- Running backs and fullbacks: Will Dalvin Cook get paid?
- Wide receivers: Justin Jefferson Isn't Stefon Diggs, and That's OK
- Offensive tackles: Will Ezra Cleveland Start as a Rookie?
- Interior offensive line: Can Garrett Bradbury Make a Leap?
Join the conversation at InsideTheVikings by clicking the follow button in the upper right-hand corner of this page (mobile users, tap the bell icon), and follow @WillRagatz on Twitter.