Breakout season by Irv Smith Jr. a key to elevating Vikings' offense

Vikings tight end Irv Smith Jr. had 30 catches for 365 yards and five touchdowns in 13 games last season. Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports

EAGAN, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings began preparing for life after tight end Kyle Rudolph two years ago when they drafted Irv Smith Jr. 50th overall.

They found a “perfect fit” in Smith as college scouting director Jamaal Stephenson gushed about all the ways they could use the tight end to create mismatches by placing him out wide, in-line or in the backfield.

Smith’s potential made the Vikings believe they could be more explosive on offense. Now, that hypothetical has a chance to become reality.

Smith, 22, is the top tight end on the roster after the Vikings parted with Rudolph in March after 10 seasons. Knowing what was on the horizon, Smith sought out different methods that would benefit his increased workload.

Smith sat down with his long-time trainer at the start of the offseason to brainstorm new methods for improvement and areas of focus. He restructured his diet with the help of his cousin, a registered dietician who recently graduated from Tulane, to prevent feeling heavy or sluggish on the field. And he came back in “phenomenal shape” this spring, according to offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak.

The Vikings got a glimpse into what the future at tight end could look like when Rudolph, 31, missed the final four games of the 2020 season with a foot injury. In that span, Smith turned 20 targets into 183 receiving yards and three touchdowns.

That’s a far cry from earlier in the season when Smith was a non-factor against Indianapolis, Tennessee and Houston. He turned things around in consecutive games against Seattle (four catches, 64 yards) and Atlanta (four catches, 55 yards, TD), but his most consistent production didn’t come until he supplanted Rudolph as TE1.

Smith has the opportunity for more playing time, but coach Mike Zimmer doesn’t expect his role to be much different.

“I think it’s a bigger role for [fellow tight end] Tyler Conklin,” Zimmer said. “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. Obviously, Kyle’s a great kid and we miss him, but we’re excited about these two young tight ends that we have.”

Smith was limited to 13 games in 2020 because of a groin injury and had 30 catches for 365 yards and five touchdowns. Expectations for increased production will depend on how the Vikings utilize his skill set.

Rudolph’s role in the passing game decreased during his final season in Minnesota, particularly in the red zone where he went from a team-high 12 targets in 2019 to five in 2020. But the receiving ability of Smith and Conklin (19 catches, 194 yards, TD) may push the Vikings to more two-tight end sets.

“Those two tight ends, they can play wideout too,” Kubiak said. “Those guys are extremely versatile. They’re complete tight ends: run, block and line up in a two-point stance and go at you. So in addition to that, we have our halfbacks we’re going to use in the pass game as well.

“So there’s no criteria. It’s like who’s the third-best wideout? It might be a tight end. It might be the halfback in the game at that point. But we have a lot of options, and we’re working on identifying who those options are come the fall.”

His targets were limited from 2019-20, but Smith made the most of his opportunities by hauling in 73.3% of his catches and posting a 139.7 passer rating when targeted.

The Vikings still barely know what Smith is capable of because he only began to scratch the surface of his potential midway through last season. They viewed him as a middle-of-the-field threat and a heavy contributor in the passing game when they drafted him in 2019. Now he gets the chance to show if he can be that guy.

“This offense is really cool because you can line guys up all over the place,” Smith said. “Now just refining in on the details and learning the whole concept, not just, 'OK, what do I have on this play or this play?' Now it's, 'If I was out here, what would I do?' Know what I'm saying? Just trying to break it down in detail so I can just go out there and play fast.”