Make Irv Smith Jr. the WR3

Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith (84) celebrates after catching a 10-yard touchdown pass during the second half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

To be clear on this Minnesota Vikings topic, this would be a symbolic, offense-focused gesture – not a literal move of Irv Smith Jr. to the WR3 spot on the depth chart. That might actually be feasible, perhaps in a video game, but this is not an endorsement to contractually shift Smith Jr. to wide receiver.

Consider Smith Jr.-to-WR a representative idea. In essence, this is an endorsement to allot the third-most targets on the team in 2021 to Smith Jr. Second-year wideout Justin Jefferson [barring injury] will command the most targets, then Adam Thielen, followed by Smith Jr. The rest of the passing-game attention will fall into place – if Minnesota makes no substantial effort to sign or draft a bonafide WR3. After Jefferson, Thielen, and Smith Jr., the target snatchers would probably resemble an order of Dalvin Cook, Bisi Johnson, and Tyler Conklin.

Smith Jr. is a pass-catching tight end, and that’s why the Vikings drafted him in 2019. He was not selected to bring a Jim Kleinsasser lunch pail to the franchise. His addition is more emblematic of Antonio Gates of yesteryear, so it is time to exploit that analogy. So far, Smith Jr. has displayed a propensity to score touchdowns. But the Vikings offensive gameplan has shown no serious commitment to feeding Smith Jr. the ball in bulk.

As the team notoriously scoffs at nominating a sure-fire WR3 as most other NFL teams prefer, Smith Jr. fits as an organic solution at WR3. He can carry the WR3 load working under the banner of a TE1.

Per-Target Translation

Get him the damn ball – is what this boils down to.

Let’s pretend in good faith that the Vikings opt not to target Smith Jr. 145 times in 2021 like the Kansas City Chiefs did with Travis Kelce in 2020. Kelce is the gold standard, and Smith Jr. obviously is not in that pantheon right now. Trim Smith Jr.’s hypothetical target-share to something more sensible like 100 targets as a hybrid WR3-TE1. 100 targets in 2020 would have been the sixth-most targets by a tight end leaguewide last season.

Smith Jr. pulled down 30 receptions for 365 yards and five touchdowns during the pandemic season. Not bad for a man who had the ball tossed in his vicinity 43 times.

Translated to the theoretical 100 targets in 2021, here is Smith Jr.’s new statline:

70 Receptions / 849 Receiving Yards / 12 Touchdowns.

How’s that sound for a WR3? Not bad. And don’t worry about the TE1 slack this might leave behind. Tyler Conklin emerged late in 2020 as a reliable pass-catching alternative to Kyle Rudolph for Kirk Cousins. Conklin will be just fine. Yes, this also means that Rudolph probably won’t be a member of the 2021 Vikings – for better or worse.

Fulfillment of Draft Capital Destiny

Listen, the Vikings spent rather high draft capital on Smith Jr. in 2019. The team had a sturdy and clutch tight end with Rudolph, so why splurge on an athletic, collegiate-standout tight end? An embarrassment of riches? No. General Manager Rick Spielman was plotting for life-after-Rudolph. We’ve arrived. Rudolph carries a hefty financial hit for a team that is currently cash-strapped. In some regards, his existence on the 2020 team was probably a lifetime-achievement extension of good faith to afford him one more big payday. That isn’t really prudent in 2021.

Using Smith Jr. for more than 43 targets is preordained progression. Now is the time to feed him the football. He will be 23 years old in 2021 – you know, the age of some rookies – and he was given a head start at age 21 to begin his maturation.

With two years of professional experience under his purple belt, an exit-stage-left for Rudolph, and the clamoring for a WR3 within the offense, Minnesota should use what’s already in the pantry to fortify its 2021 offense.

“What the Hell Do You Have to Lose?”

Admittedly, this is theft of Trumpian lingo from the 2016 presidential campaign.

The Vikings do not expect much from WR3 as-is. What is the harm of tapping Smith Jr. for the duties? Zilch.

Spielman can either pluck a WR3 from the bargain bin of free agency next month or find a rookie wide receiver in the draft. The team has not successfully done that at all recently – arguably since the days of Jarius Wright. Therefore, Smith Jr. as defacto WR3 satisfies two worlds.

A longstanding WR3 drought would experience the cloudburst of an ascending young pass-catcher in Smith Jr. And that ascending young pass-catcher would take his predestined next steps.