General Manager Rick Spielman kept focus Friday night on the Vikings offense with two more draft picks furthering the makeover of that side of the football.
First selected was tight end Irv Smith Jr., a record setter at Alabama who was drafted with the 50th overall pick by a Vikings offense eager to feature him as a receiver in their reworked scheme. A flurry of trades back in the third round was eventually followed by the selection of running back Alexander Mattison, a workhorse for Boise State taken with the 102nd overall pick. The two join Thursday’s top pick, center Garrett Bradbury, marking the first time under head coach Mike Zimmer the Vikings’ opening three picks of a draft addressed offense.
“That was a big boost for our offense,” Spielman said. “We’re going to still add a lot of players [Saturday] who I think can help this football team.”
The Vikings now have nine draft picks entering Saturday’s final rounds. Spielman said he is willing to package some of the many late-round picks to trade up, if the chance arises.
“With the depth of this draft class, it gave us an opportunity,” Spielman said. “Now, would I have predicted we’d have nine picks [Saturday]? No, but that’s the way it unfolded.”
Trading back was not a consideration in the second round with Smith available. Instead, Spielman made a pick geared at ending a yearslong pursuit of a dangerous receiving tight end. This is the fifth straight year Spielman drafted a tight end, but Smith. is the most valuable selection since Kyle Rudolph was a 2011 second-round pick.
“Trade talks were flooding in,” said Jamaal Stephenson, the Vikings’ director of college scouting. “But we just felt like [Smith] was too valuable to what we wanted to do, so we stayed.”
The Vikings view Smith (6-2, 242 pounds) as a do-it-all, “move” tight end, which means he can align at nearly any position on the field to create desired mismatches against a safety or linebacker. He can, at least, immediately complement Rudolph in an offense expected to lean heavily on formations featuring two tight ends.
“We believe Irv is a perfect fit for our new scheme, offensively in terms of what they want to do with a mismatch guy,” Stephenson said. “We can line him up wide. We can line him up tight or in the backfield, so he’s got a lot of versatility and he’s a great kid. Another kid just like Bradbury, A-plus character.”
Smith comes from a football bloodline. His father, Irv Smith Sr., was a 1993 first-round pick by the Saints, where he started a seven-year NFL career. His son began playing football as a receiver at Brother Martin High School in New Orleans. The athleticism showed during a 4.63-second 40-yard dash, which ranked third among all tight ends at the combine.
Years ago, some fatherly advice led to the position switch.
“[Dad] said you can either be a slow receiver or a fast tight end,” Smith Jr. said. “So, I went with being a fast tight end, and it worked out.”
He is still relatively green, even for an NFL rookie. Smith won’t turn 21 years old until Aug. 9, during the middle of his first Vikings training camp. He didn’t get much exposure at Alabama, starting his college career behind Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard, until his junior year last fall.
Alabama’s pro-style offense should benefit Smith’s transition to the NFL. He was both a featured target and lead blocker. He’s still a “work in progress” as a run blocker, Stephenson said, and it will be an emphasis for him this summer.
Running the ball is a priority in 2019. It’s why Spielman made Mattison, the Boise State running back, the final pick of Friday night’s third round.
In Mattison (5-11, 221 pounds), the Vikings get a durable, downhill runner. He was one of a select few FBS running backs to surpass 300 carries last season and ranked eighth with 1,415 rushing yards.
“I’ll never shy away from anything,” Mattison said. “I was grateful they wanted to put the team on my back and give me the carries here and there.”
The Vikings needed to address the help behind Dalvin Cook. The No. 2 job was vacated by Latavius Murray’s free-agent exit to the Saints.
“We wanted a Murray type,” Spielman said. “We feel he can do that.”