What better time for tight end Irv Smith Jr. to hit the peak of his rookie progression than now. Over the past 11 weeks, Smith has not only shown he can handle the duties of run-blocking, which are often difficult for first-year players, he has also emerged as an important pass-catcher in a top-10 offense.
Smith, a second-round pick out of Alabama, is thriving in a starter's role as the Vikings have deployed heavy tight end usage while retooling their passing attack without Thielen. Smith has played more than 60% of offensive snaps in each of the past four games, reaching a career high 81% participation mark against the Denver Broncos in Week 11, when he scored his first NFL touchdown.
"Since Thielen has been out since the Detroit game, we've had other players step up," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. "All of a sudden Irv Smith becomes a big part of the offense. You're seeing him get split out not just at the tight end position, but they're moving him to the slot, they're moving him outside. Because he's a very good athlete to create those types of mismatches."
Tight end is notoriously one of the hardest positions to transition from college to the NFL. Rookie tight ends, no matter how high they are drafted, typically don't make a major impact during their first season. Vikings coaches admitted as much during the offseason program, when they said Smith was "swimming" with all he was being asked to do.
Months later, Smith is well ahead of the curve with his 27 catches for 261 yards and a touchdown. He ranks 16th out of 47 tight ends in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, higher than the two drafted ahead of him in April (the Broncos' Noah Fant and the Lions' T.J. Hockenson, 41st and 35th, respectively).
"I'll go back to the draft and with [assistant general manager] George [Paton] and Rick -- I give them a lot of credit," assistant head coach/offensive adviser Gary Kubiak said. "They saw a young player that was going to continue to grow and develop, and that's what I saw too. He was very young coming out. I think Irv is getting even bigger. I think he's going to be an even bigger player as he moves forward. They knew it was coming. And the fact that we have [Kyle Rudolph] and we have [Tyler Conklin] here, we were able to bring Irv along slowly, and now we're asking a great deal of him. I think it was the foresight of what could happen with this kid along the way. Hopefully his best is yet to come."
One of Minnesota's top priorities for the offense was finding the right fit to complement the veteran Rudolph so they could regularly deploy multiple tight end sets. It was an element that had been missing in recent years and gave the Vikings the advantage of drawing an extra linebacker when deploying three-wide sets.
The Vikings have used 12 personnel (2 TE, 2 WR, 1 RB) on 29% of plays, 22 personnel (2 TE, 2 RB, 1 WR) on 12% of plays, and 13 personnel (3 TE, 1 WR, 1 RB) on 10% of plays in their first 11 games.
Smith's presence has not just created mismatches, it's helped Minnesota set and control the tone on offense.
"Well, he's a guy that we can use sometimes as a receiver, sometimes as a tight end, so you're not sure if you're going to get nickel or you're going to get the base defense when he and Kyle are in there together," coach Mike Zimmer said. "But we can exploit those two areas by either running against little guys or throwing against big guys, so I think that having a weapon like him has been really good."
Smith has emerged in Thielen's absence and given the Vikings the belief that he can continue to play at this rate while taking on a bigger role.
"I feel like each game is definitely a moving step for me," Smith said. "As a rookie coming in, I had a lot on my plate at first trying to come in and learn the offense, but Coach [Kevin] Stefanski, Coach [Brian] Pariani did an amazing job getting me ready. Each week I just had to come with the mindset that I can't be stopped and this offense can't be stopped. I just had to have that mindset each day, and each game is more experience under my belt."