There isn’t a single position in football that has an easy transition from college to the NFL but tight end is a doozy.
Most of the top college tight ends are matchup nightmares for opposing teams. They are too fast for NCAA linebackers and too big for cornerbacks and safeties. In the NFL the linebackers run 4.5 40-yard dashes and the safeties hit like linebackers. In college top receiving tight ends are weapons in pass-happy offenses and even solid blocking tight ends never face anyone that can prepare them for the athletic freakishness of NFL pass rushers.
The workload is more complicated both in the run and passing game and expectations are usually high, especially if a rookie tight end was impressive at the NFL Combine.
Recent history shows the transition usually requires development. Here’s a look at how all the first and second round tight ends performed in Year 1 since 2013:
As you might have noticed, only one player caught more than 40 passes and three grabbed fewer than 10 in their rookie campaigns. Over the past 15 years, only two rookie tight ends have gained more than 600 yards receiving.
That’s the uphill battle Irv Smith is facing with the Vikings aiming for him to be an impact player right away. Head coach Mike Zimmer said that his ability to be a difference maker right away could be helped along by his experience in multiple roles.
“A lot of times — not so much for Alabama — these guys line up as wide receivers in college and that’s always a bigger adjustment,” Zimmer said. “We’re fortunate enough that Irv was able to line up in a normal tight end spot, he lined up in the backfield, he lined up wide as well. I think his transition will probably be a little bit quicker.”
While first and second rounders haven’t always been major successes right away there have been a number of tight ends who have been positive contributors to their teams’ offenses. Fifteen rookie tight ends have caught at least 30 passes and nine have registered QB ratings over 100 when targeted. Here’s that group (ratings via PFF):
Target QB Rating
Throughout the offseason there have been rumors that the Vikings could move on from veteran Kyle Rudolph. His contract is set to expire after this season and the team is short on salary cap space both now and in the future.
But Rudolph’s play in the passing game would be hard to replace. Over his career Vikings quarterbacks have put together about a season’s worth of pass attempts his way. Per Pro Football Focus they have gone 396-for-545 for 3,906 yards with 42 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and a rating of 109.0. His shoes wouldn’t be easy to fill for a rookie.
Last year the Vikings were severely lacking in production from tight ends not named Kyle Rudolph. Rookie Tyler Conklin and blocking tight end David Morgan combined for 10 catches for 113 yards.
The Vikings offense overall is in serious need of a boost — the type that an effective tight end can provide. They ranked 19th in total scoring, 18th in net yards per pass attempt and 30th in rushing yards. Minnesota’s offense was also 20th in passing plays of 20-plus yards.
If Smith is a hit, he can improve all of those stats. He was a deep threat in college, producing five catches on throws that traveled more than 20 yards in the air. The rookie tight end also caught 77.2 percent of passes his way and nabbed 18 of his 44 receptions out of the slot.
Even if he isn’t prepared to block at an average or above average level in 2019 the use of multi-tight end personnel groupings could create enough mismatches to boost the running game.
Normally the pressure wouldn’t be super high on a second-round, No. 2 tight end to jumpstart the offense but in the Vikings’ case the heat will be on management and the coaching staff to return to the postseason. Regardless of defensive performance, it won’t be easy to make the playoffs without a better performance out of the offensive side.