Irv Smith Jr. is a game-changer for Vikings

MINNEAPOLIS — Lost in the Minnesota Vikings’ wild second-half comeback win over the Denver Broncos was Irv Smith Jr.’s milestone.

The 2019 second-round pick caught the first touchdown of his career, a 10-yard toss from quarterback Kirk Cousins that began the Vikings’ march from down 20 points at halftime to a 27-23 victory at US Bank Stadium.

“It felt amazing, it was a long time coming,” Smith said of his grab. “This team has so much fight and so much heart. It was a special victory. We showed the world what we are capable of doing.”

Smith’s 51 total snaps in the game equated to 74% of total plays, the highest mark of his career. Over the past six weeks he’s been in the game for more than half of the Vikings’ offensive snaps and for more than 60% in each of the last four games.

During that six-game stretch of regular playing time, the former Alabama standout has 22 catches on 26 targets for 197 yards. Over 16 games that translates to 59 receptions and 525 yards. When targeting Smith, Cousins has a 111.1 quarterback rating (per PFF).

You won’t find too many No. 2 tight ends in the NFL producing like Smith since Aaron Hernandez’s brief NFL career in which he produced 45 receptions as a rookie and then 79 catches in 2011.

His success has been based both on performance and circumstance. Under Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski’s offensive scheme, the Vikings stand way out from the rest of the NFL in their usage of big/heavy personnel packages. Per SharpFootballStats, the Vikings use 11 personnel (3WR) just 22% of the time, lowest in the NFL and 12 personnel (1RB, 2TE)on  29% of plays, 22 personnel (2RB, 2TE) on 12% (second most) and 13 personnel (1RB, 3TE) on 10% (most).

“We know our time is coming,” Smith said. “Everyday at practice we work, all three of us. I learn so much from (Tyler) Conklin and Kyle (Rudolph) and they learn from me. We feed off of each other. It’s a lot of good energy in that room. It’s a lot of fun playing with them.”

The Vikings have had great success throwing the ball when Smith is on the field. With two tight ends and two running backs in the game, Cousins has a 124.2 rating and 113.8 with three tight ends. Smith’s play is allowing the Vikings to throw something at opposing defenses that they do not see very often.

“He’s a guy that we can use sometimes as a receiver, sometimes as a tight end so you’re not sure if you’re going to get nickel or the base defense when him and Kyle are in there together,” Zimmer said. “We can exploit those two areas by either running against little guys or throwing against big guys so I think having a weapon like him has been really good.”

Overall Smith grades out as Pro Football Focus’s 16th (of 47) best tight end in the NFL.  The two tight ends drafted ahead of him, Denver’s Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson, are 41st and 35th, respectively.

“He made a good read on the touchdown catch and every day I see him getting better, coming out and running better routes…I think it’s part of the process of becoming more reliable,” Zimmer said.

Smith’s playing time and value are boosted by the fact that he’s been a solid run blocker — which is a rarity among rookie tight ends. PFF ranks him as the 12th best run blocker among tight ends this year, a shade ahead of former Viking Rhett Ellison.

When receiver Adam Thielen suffered a hamstring injury against the Detroit Lions it was unclear which players would step up in his absence. Smith has not only been one of those players but he’s shown the capability to be a mismatch player down the stretch and into the future for the Vikings. Call that the dream scenario when they picked him in the second round.