For just the third time since the start of the 2018 season, the Vikings’ leading receiver Sunday was not named Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph or Adam Thielen.
It was a rookie tight end offering a three-catch sampler platter of what he can become in the team’s offense.
On Sunday, second-round pick Irv Smith Jr. was one of three tight ends running a vertical route on the Vikings’ first drive, hauling in a 20-yard completion from Kirk Cousins. The quarterback found Smith for 26 yards on a corner route in the second quarter, and Smith flowed behind the Vikings offensive line in the third quarter, on what looked like a backside block on a zone run, before releasing into the flat for a 26-yard catch and run that was called back because of Chad Beebe’s illegal block. Smith’s 60 yards Sunday were the fourth most by a rookie tight end in franchise history.
“I think his skills are what they’ve been from Day 1,” Cousins said. “He’s got great movement skills, he’s got speed. Even on the play that I believe ended up being nullified because of the penalty he’s shown he’s got some great speed down the sideline after catching the football.”
When the Vikings added Smith to their offense, he represented a commodity they hadn’t enjoyed in years, despite their recent efforts. They played host to Jared Cook on a free-agent visit before he signed with Oakland in the spring of 2017, and they discussed acquiring Tyler Higbee from the Rams for a late-round pick before talks fell apart in 2018.
After they spent a second-round pick on Smith in the spring, college scouting director Jamaal Stephenson said, “Athletically, he is kind of what we’ve been looking for.
“We believe Irv is a perfect fit for our new scheme offensively, what they want to do in terms of a mismatch guy,” Stephenson said. “We can line him up wide, we can line him up in tight. We can use him in the backfield. He has a lot of versatility.”
Playing in a pro-style offense that featured the run at Alabama, Smith caught 44 passes for 710 yards as a junior while playing a variety of roles. He lined up in the slot six times Sunday while playing a season-high 31 snaps. Beebe injured his ankle on the play he was penalized against the Raiders, and his departure left the Vikings with three healthy wide receivers.
While the Vikings could look to add another receiver to their roster this week, Smith’s development might help them as much as anything.
“I think we have three good tight ends and the more we can use them, you get in there, you get big groups in there and then next thing you know is they’re spread out and we’re throwing the football or using them in different ways,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “[We had] the tight end screen to Kyle. We had a corner route to Irv, and [Tyler] Conklin will start getting some balls, too.”
Smith, whose father, Irv, played in the NFL for seven seasons, didn’t turn 21 until the day of the Vikings’ first preseason game last month, It stands to reason Smith Jr. will take on a more prominent role in coming years, but he has got a chance to play an important role in his first season in Minnesota.
Sunday’s performance — and the way the Vikings used their tight ends — suggests Smith will have opportunities coming his way.
“Each day, each game, you get more comfortable — kind of just knowing what to expect,” Smith said. “The coaches are learning me and what I can do well to help this team. The more they get to see, the more I’m out there doing, the more I can help.”