Vikings have big plans for TE Irv Smith, but history suggests patience

Rookie tight end Irv Smith Jr. has impressed the Vikings with his versatility, including his run-blocking. Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports

EAGAN, Minn. -- At first he was swimming. By the end of training camp, he was surprising.

The Minnesota Vikings were drawn to Irv Smith Jr.'s athleticism when they used a second-round pick (50th overall) to draft the former Alabama tight end in April. They prioritized finding quarterback Kirk Cousins a sturdy, middle-of-the-field threat who could create mismatches with linebackers or safeties and line up in a multitude of spots.

That ability in the passing game has been evident over the past month, but his work as a run-blocker, an area where rookie tight ends often struggle, has caught some coaches off guard.

"We saw a smaller (6-foot-2, 242 pound), athletic player but he's really, on the line of scrimmage, has surprised some people, so we want our guys to be versatile and do a little bit of everything," assistant head coach Gary Kubiak said.

Smith packs a ton of potential and is expected to have a sizeable role early in his NFL career. He's classified as an F tight end given the way he can affect the passing game in a hybrid receiver role along with what he can do as an in-line blocker or when lined up as an H-back or fullback. The expectation is that he'll develop into the rare complete tight end who will be a "big part" of the system Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski are running, according to general manager Rick Spielman.

Tight ends have accounted for an average of 23% of targets in Kubiak’s offenses over his 21 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator. Often, the No. 3 receiver is actually a tight end in his offense.

The Vikings have big plans for Smith, but history suggests that it will take a year or more for him to put up big numbers.

Over the past 16 years, only two rookie tight ends have produced more than 600 yards receiving: the Giants' Evan Engram, who had 722 yards in 2017 and John Carlson, formerly of the Seahawks, who had 627 yards in 2008.

Ravens tight end Mark Andrews came close to that figure last season, totaling 552 receiving yards on 34 catches and three touchdowns in his first year. There was a considerable drop-off from Andrews' production to the next group of rookie tight ends with the Eagles' Dallas Goedert notching 334 receiving yards and four TDs.

The transition from college to the NFL poses challenges at any position, but particularly at tight end. Though the Vikings drafted Smith with the idea that he'll be a critical asset in Year 1, tight end is not considered a plug-and-play position.

"The transition, it's not an easy one," said Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, a nine-year veteran. "There's so many factors that go into our production. Wide receivers are paid to catch the football. It doesn't matter what's going on with the team, it doesn't matter what's going on with the offense, you throw the ball to wide receivers.

"Tight ends, our position has so many different variables that decide production in the pass game. You add all that together -- who knows what situation you're placed in? Are you staying in and protecting more? What kind of routes are you running? Players in college aren't putting their hand in the ground and expected to block Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter. You're not running routes against safeties like we go against every day that can actually cover."

Added coach Mike Zimmer: "A lot of times that is completely foreign to these tight ends that come in the league because basically, they were big receivers in college. The blocking is different, getting a release from a guy that's standing over them, that's different."

Though Smith will continue to work through the inevitable growing pains of his NFL transition, having him in this offense could benefit the Vikings -- and his fellow tight end teammates.

The night Smith was drafted, Spielman was adamant that Rudolph's status in the offense would not change.

"Just two totally different types of tight ends," Spielman said.

Smith might eventually be tabbed as Rudolph's replacement beyond the 2019 season, but the things Minnesota can do with both suggests they can not only co-exist in this offense but thrive in equally important roles.

"About this point in Jason Witten's career, they drafted Martellus Bennett in the second round," Rudolph said. "That elevated Jason's career. He caught more balls in that time with Martellus (Witten had two 1,000-yard receiving seasons in 2009-10). When you have another tight end that can catch the ball, it makes our offense so much more difficult to defend. It allows us to dictate run and pass. When it is pass, they can't ignore one tight end and cover the other. I think it can give us incredible versatility on offense."

Most importantly, with the goal of being less predictable on offense, using both Rudolph and Smith (or other tight ends or fullbacks) will allow the Vikings to deploy heavier personnel groupings after Minnesota ran 55% of its plays out of 11 personnel (three wide receivers, one tight end, one running back) last season.

"You can get a multitude of formations (with two tight ends) more so than you can get out of 11 personnel," Zimmer said. "They can get both of them (tight ends) on the same side, with the slot, three guys over here then you get one on this side (3x1 formation) and bring them back, help with the protection on the play-action passes. You can get opened up formations. You can get one on each side and two slot receivers to the other side.

"That part makes it difficult because if you're calling a game, you kind of know when they're in 11 personnel, they're going to either be in 3x1 or 2x2 and with (multiple tight end sets), you can have a two-back formation. So it makes it more difficult, in my opinion, to figure out what the formation is going to be prior to the snap."