|Photo: Alabama Athletics|
Tight end Irv Smith Jr. brings a mismatch tight end to a Vikings offense searching for more explosive weapons. Find out more about the selection in this story!
After spending their first-round selection on center Garrett Bradbury, the Vikings shifted their attention to adding a playmaker. As the board continued to take shape, weapons started to take a dive. Throughout the draft process, Minnesota did plenty of homework on tight ends, including ones with superior athletic traits. Alabama tight end Irv Smith Jr. had late first and early second round grades by many experts, but slid all the way to 50. The Vikings simply couldn’t pass up the value and also filled a need in the process.
“He’s a guy that’s going to help us move the chains,” Vikings Director of College Scouting Jamaal Stephenson said after the selection. “He was one of the guys we had targeted, so was Bradbury, so that’s why we were so excited when we got two guys that we feel like can help us.”
In 2018, Smith Jr. had 44 receptions for 710 yards, while averaging 16.1 yards per reception at Alabama. He also had seven touchdowns and 11 of his receptions totaled more than 20 yards. In addition, 28 of his total receptions resulted in first down conversions, according to Vikings Director of College Scouting Jamaal Stephenson. During his sophomore year, Smith Jr. had just 14 catches for 128 yards and three touchdowns, but learned behind former Bucs first-round tight end O.J. Howard.
When sifting through PFF data, Smith Jr. is No. 1 in the draft class in yards per route run and ranks fifth in deep pass receptions (20-plus yards). He’s the type of player the Vikings were looking for when adding another explosive dimension to the offense. This type of mismatch flexibility is something the coaches have been wanting to add this offseason.
“It was crucial, it’s one of the that things we talked about for the last two or three weeks in our meetings was, we wanted to be more explosive on offense, we want to move the ball and keep our offense on the field,” Smith Jr. said. “We feel like Irv can do that for us.”
As Minnesota searched for an athletic mismatch tight end to flex all over the field, Smith Jr. checked all of the boxes. With veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph already in the fold, Minnesota will likely have the opportunity to run more two tight end sets. During draft coverage, NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah even said the Vikings could explore trading Rudolph. However, Stephenson said he would let the coaches answer questions about players’ roles. He just knew how Smith Jr.’s athleticism aligned with the type of tight end they were searching for in the draft.
“We believe Irv is the perfect fit for our new scheme, offensively what they want to do in terms of a mismatch guy,” Stephenson said after the pick. “A guy who we can move around, we can line him up, we can line him up in tight, we can use him in the backfield, so he has a lot of versatility.”
This type of versatility is something Smith Jr. has focused on as he developed his skills. Whether it’s flexing out wide, into the slot or chipping down to help as a blocker, the young Alabama tight end is striving to do it all.
“All the best tight ends in the NFL and all the greats, they are able to do both run block and make plays in the passing game. It opens a lot for you and it helps your team in all phases of the game. It’s something I pride myself on and will continue to work and improve as a player.”
His father, Irv. Smith Sr., was a former first-round pick by the New Orleans Saints in 1993. The Notre Dame standout put together a seven-year NFL career with stops in New Orleans, San Francisco and Cleveland. He posted 183 receptions for 1,788 yards and 15 touchdowns. Smith Jr. is also the nephew of former Atlanta Falcons tight end Ed Smith. This family history of football has helped guide Smith Jr. through the entire draft process.
“He’s helped me so much. Just telling me some of the things to do, some of things not to do, learning from his mistakes and just picking his brain. He’s helped me so much and he’s going to continue to help me throughout this process,” Smith Jr. said.
Smith Jr. was initially a wide receiver when he first started playing football in eighth grade. However, during his sophomore year, he moved to tight end and fell in love with the position. At one point, Smith Jr. was faced with the difficult question his father posed about his playing career.
“At first [my dad] said, ‘you can be a slow receiver or a fast tight end.’ I went with being a fast tight end and it worked out,” Smith Jr. joked.
As Minnesota unleashes Smith Jr. all over the field and takes advantage of his dynamic ability after the catch, the young tight end is ready to make defenses pay. Whether that’s in the slot, in-line or on the outside, he’s ready to unleash all of his skills. The young tight end is ready to show what he can do in the NFL.
“I believe no linebacker or safety 1-on-1 can stay with me,” Smith Jr. said. “And I’m going to keep proving to people that’s how I feel.”