Those inside and outside of the Minnesota Vikings orbit foresaw this moment since April 25th, 2019. That was the day that Irv Smith Jr. joined the organization via 2nd-Round pick from the University of Alabama. Football teams do not draft tight ends with that degree of draft capital only to avoid full engagement.
For two years, Kyle Rudolph and Smith Jr. harmoniously coexisted. Rudolph took care of the late-game targets from quarterback Kirk Cousins whereas the offense familiarized itself with the contents of Smith Jr.’s toolset. It became apparent that Smith Jr. possessed the pizazz and physical capability to command the workshare of a first-option tight end. But he could not realize that fate with a reputable name like Rudolph claiming his longstanding title of TE1.
The Vikings depth chart fundamentally shifted on Tuesday when the team released Rudolph. The move saves Minnesota about $5 million in 2021 cap space and enables the 31-year-old Rudolph to continue his admirable career outside the state of Minnesota. Immediately, teams like the Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, and Denver Broncos were rumored to be potential destinations for Rudolph’s next steps.
With that move, Smith Jr. rifles the TE1 job while four-year veteran Tyler Conklin will assume the TE2 role unless something funky happens in April’s draft.
The time is now for Smith Jr. – and nearly everyone in VikingsVille knew this day was near.
Mammoth-sized Shoes to Fill
Rudolph may not have been Tony Gonzalez in 2020 (or ever), but he did compile a streak of longevity that demands the admiration of any NFL fan. Now, Smith Jr. begins that trek of mimicking or exceeding that precedent. It will not be easy as notching ten full seasons with the same franchise is a rarity at tight end.
Yet, the journey accelerates now. Onlookers of Vikings football saw seedlings of Smith Jr.’s athletic prowess in the last two years. His future is equally as exciting as the radiant memories of Rudolph’s past.
Rudolph was a titan of Vikings football. He departs the organization as second all-time in receiving yards by a tight end behind Steve Jordan. And he holds the Vikings record – by a mile – for receiving touchdowns at tight end with 48 (Steve Jordan had 28 touchdowns in 13 years.)
Overall for touchdowns scored at all positions, Rudolph ranks ninth in Vikings history – ahead of names like Robert Smith, Jake Reed, Percy Harvin, and Ahmad Rashad.
Youth on Smith Jr. Side
Truth be told, Smith Jr. could waltz out of college this year, and it would not be remotely weird. He will turn 23 this August – not elderly for a rookie tight end. In that regard, one can consider the last two seasons as gravy for his professional development.
Smith Jr. has a head start to his career because he turned pro at age 21. That gave him time to learn alongside Rudolph and find comfort within the Vikings offense, preparing for the nomination as undisputed TE1. That day arrived on March 2nd, 2021.
Evan Engram began his career at age 23. George Kittle was 24. Jimmy Graham also started his NFL life at 24. Smith Jr. was 21. Any pessimism surrounding his production to date (there isn’t much) should be tapered because the man is just getting started – and that inspires a boatload of bullishness on his trajectory.
Commanding TE1 Targets of the First Time
It was wholly unfeasible to pay Rudolph Top 5 tight-end money in the last two seasons and leave him on the bench. That’s why Minnesota still implemented him in the gameplan during 2019 and 2020. Even with clay to mold in Smith Jr., Rudolph remained a focal point in the redzone and late-game situations (see: New Orleans, 2019 Playoffs) because his hands are so damn reliable and his clutch receptions are close to unrivaled within the Vikings history books.
But now it is Smith Jr.’s turn. Rudolph was afforded 48 targets from Kirk Cousins in 2019 and 37 targets in 2020. Those will now slide over to Smith Jr. and Conklin (but mostly Smith Jr.). All Smith Jr. needs is attention within the passing game – or so goes the working theory.
The Alabama alumnus earned 3.3 targets per game last season, which translates to 53 for the full season (he missed three games to injury in 2020). One can take that 53 targets and plop and at least 30 to 40 on top, now that Rudolph will play for a different NFL team.
A Top 10 tight end in the league sees about 100 targets per season nowadays. In 2021, don’t be surprised if Smith Jr. inches closer to that – especially as the Vikings notoriously ignore the WR3 spot on the depth chart.