Irv Smith Jr. centered a bunch formation to Kirk Cousins’ right side. The elusive Vikings rookie tight end then displayed in a training camp practice why the team remains high on the second-round draft pick, even as Smith faces the same learning curve that weighs down most NFL rookie tight ends.
A 6-2, 242-pound blur sped past linebacker Kentrell Brothers. Smith then stopped his crossing route in front of Cousins, juking his head like an NBA guard. Cousins pump-faked, Brothers left his feet and Smith continued his crossing route unguarded into a touchdown catch.
“He’s shown he can roll,” Cousins said. “He’s got great movement skills.”
Smith, the Alabama product and son of former New Orleans Saints tight end Irv Smith, is a key part of the Vikings’ vision to run more “12” personnel — one running back, two tight ends — with Kyle Rudolph, and make it harder for defenses to guess if plays are run or pass. Smith also has high expectations for himself, joking he would like to catch 10 touchdowns as a rookie to come near his father’s career total.
But lofty expectations come with the context of an NFL trend for rookie tight ends — only three have eclipsed 600 receiving yards in the 2000s — and Smith’s continued education in the Vikings offense. Tight ends need to know pass protection, like offensive linemen; they need to know the routes, like wide receivers; and in Smith’s case, they need to know how to lead block, like a fullback.
Learning the playbook has been a work in progress, he said.
“It’s definitely something I’m trying to improve on,” Smith said. “It’s a big transition, but [offensive coordinator Kevin] Stefanski and [tight ends coach Brian] Pariani are doing a great job of getting me involved and just trying to work on getting better at it.”
He is getting no shortage of reps in training camp, especially with last year’s No. 2 tight end, David Morgan, on the physically-unable-to-perform list. Smith has worked primarily with the second-team offense and backup quarterback Sean Mannion, but he has mixed in with the starters as well.
The Vikings see Smith as a “move” or “F” tight end, meaning he will be aligned all over the field from fullback to slot receiver and run routes accentuating his shiftiness. Before the touchdowns are the details, such as lining up in the right place or timing his pre-snap movement properly so that when Cousins says, “set, hut,” he has no hesitation that would interrupt the cadence. Right now, Smith is still hesitating, Cousins said.
“We’ll catch him up,” assistant head coach Gary Kubiak said.
“He’s swimming because we’re asking a lot of him right now. He’s playing all over the place,” Kubiak added. “But that’s the way that it should be. That’s why he’s here.”
The difficulty, Smith said, is rooted in the NFL’s complexity compared to college.
“I moved around the field a lot in college, but it’s just different,” said Smith, who caught 58 passes for 838 yards and 10 touchdowns in 24 games with the Crimson Tide. “In this offense, each concept you could be [anywhere] — so you got to know the whole concept. So it’s definitely challenging, but in the long run it’s going to be worth it.”
Much has been put on Smith’s plate this summer, so the Vikings can pare down his duties during the season, according to coach Mike Zimmer.
“That’s the big thing, is trying to figure out how much he can handle,” Zimmer said. “Then, you know, it’ll get cut down for him on gameday, so that he understands all the things to do — but he really hasn’t been making too many mistakes.”
Should Morgan return from the PUP list, the Vikings have the luxury of depth in four tight ends. That’s orchestrated based on where Stefanski and Kubiak see the offense heading, which is into balanced playcalling out of heavier personnel.
Tyler Conklin, in his second NFL season, stepped into Rudolph’s role when the veteran missed practice Friday and Saturday. Behind Conklin, for now, is Smith, who has the Vikings waiting to see how quickly he can reach his ceiling.
“We’re going to have a chance to have [tight end] be a strength of our football team,” Kubiak said. “The more versatile those guys are, gives us a chance to move people around defensively.”