Last season was supposed to be the season where Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith Jr. had a breakout year.
Entering the third season of his career since the Vikings plucked the former Alabama prospect out of the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Smith finally had a clear shot at winning the starting tight end gig. This was in large part due to Kyle Rudolph signing with the New York Giants as a free agent, meaning there would no longer be an established vet ahead of Smith on the depth chart.
Then, the injury happened. In preseason it was announced that Smith Jr had torn his meniscus in his knee and had to undergo surgery which knocked him out for the entire year. This prompted the front office to trade for Chris Herndon, who ended up catching just four passes all season.
Meanwhile, Smith’s replacement, Tyler Conklin had a career year, parlaying his success into a three-year, $20 million contract with the New York Jets this past offseason.
Now nearly one year removed from his September 2021 meniscus surgery, it appears Irv Smith Jr. is finally back to 100%, as a full participant in the team’s minicamp. So, once again, the starting tight end role belongs to Smith, and he’s in line for a big role with Kevin O’Connell’s offense.
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Irv Smith Jr. a good bet for a career year
There’s a reason why even at 6-foot-2 (a bit on the small size for his position), Irv Smith was the 50th player selected in his draft class. While he was the third tight end selected in 2019, behind T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, Smith still possesses just as much potential as his fellow draft picks.
Smith Jr. doesn’t face much else competition behind him, with unproven options like Ben Ellefson, Zach Davidson, Nick Muse, and Johnny Mundt all on the depth chart as well. Expect the Vikings to give Smith all the reps he can handle.
Through his first two seasons, Smith Jr. had nearly identical numbers playing in a backup role to Rudolph. Smith had 311 and 365 receiving yards in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
Smith Jr. should be able to double that production in 2022. Just look at Tyler Conklin’s production from a season ago, when he racked up nearly 600 receiving yards.
Smith has the ability to be one of the better pass-catching tight ends in football. Though he doesn’t have the electric speed of a freak like Kyle Pitts or Darren Waller, Smith’s athletic abilities are above average. He proved this with his 4.63 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in 2019. Add in his hands which have helped Smith haul in 75.9% of his targets in his NFL career so far, and it becomes clear, he’s a strong bet to have a career year in his age-23 season in 2022.
With Smith Jr. expected to be the third option in the passing offense for Kirk Cousins, behind Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, with K.J. Osborn also stealing some of the target share, Conklin’s production should be able to translate to Smith Jr.
Conklin was a positive development after Smith’s injury a season ago, but the latter has always been the far-superior talent, now he’ll get a chance to prove it to the NFL.
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