Irv Smith Jr. is Well-Positioned for a Breakout Season

It’s hard to believe that Irv Smith Jr. is still only 22 years old. He has already been in the NFL for two seasons, and it’s safe to say that it’s mostly just fans of the Minnesota Vikings who believe Irv Smith is ready for a breakout season.

Recently, Smith finished a mere 26th on PFF‘s list for top NFL tight ends. After a little more thought, I think this number is far too low.

Over his career, Smith has 66 catches, 676 yards, and seven touchdowns. We need to remember the broader context, though. Smith has been the TE2 in an offense that prioritizes Dalvin Cook. Furthermore, both Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson (and Stefon Diggs back in 2019) rightly demand more targets. The end result has been some pretty limited opportunity for Smith.

In 2021, the limited opportunity should change.

The former Alabama TE finished last season as PFF‘s 19th ranked TE with a 70.0 score. Far from elite, but rock-solid. He was raw coming out of college, but he has already shown an ability to be a good tight end. At this point, Smith needs to show that he can take the next step so he can become an elite tight end.

One factor to keep in mind is that his overall score is impacted by a dismal pass blocking number: 29.2. It’s safe to say that Smith wasn’t brought in to help Protect Kirk in pass pro. The best way he can help keep Kirk clean is to get open early and often. Indeed, the sooner Smith finds some separation, the easier it is for the fellas up front and Cousins.

Last season, the majority of Smith’s snaps came inline. 387 were inline whereas 102 were in the slot. He also had 48 out wide. The Vikings won’t be radically reshaping their offense, but they ought to increase the amount of reps Smith gets in all three spots. When he’s inline or in the slot, Smith is faster than most linebackers. When he is out wide, Smith is stronger than most corners and safeties. It behooves Lil’Kub to get Smith much, much more involved in the offense (fantasy football players should be targeting Smith in the late rounds).

For the Minnesota Vikings to succeed, players like Irv Smith Jr. will need to step up. If he takes that next step forward, defenses will be put in the impossible position of trying to slow Cook, Thielen, Jefferson, and Smith. That’s a lot to put on an opposing defense.

The recent news out of OTAs is encouraging, but we ought to avoid being too excited about these workouts. The real optimism for Smith rests in what he has actually shown us in real NFL football games over the past two seasons. The only thing that held him back in these first two seasons were A) his youth and B) his lack of opportunity in a crowded offense.

Smith is still quite young and the offense is still quite crowded, but his development should force the Vikings to increasingly prioritize him. Indeed, Smith’s emergence as a top-tier TE feels almost inevitable to many Vikings fans. If Smith does breakout – as many of us believe – Minnesota’s already potent offense will be even more difficult to slow down.