Irv Smith Jr. Is Primed for a Big Year + OTA Impressions

Irv Smith
Jul 30, 2021; Eagan, MN, United States; Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith Jr. (84) catches a pass at training camp at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Vikings Insider, The GM’s View 

As OTAs wind down and the Vikings get closer to wrapping up their offseason program with next week’s minicamp, the optimism is in full bloom at Vikings headquarters. One of the Vikings key offensive threats—tight end Irv Smith Jr.—is excited to be back from his season of injury and feeling positive about his chances to have a big fourth season as a critical target for Kirk Cousins.

“It’s amazing to be back on the field, back with the guys,” Smith told me after Wednesday’s OTA practice. “Playing football, doing what I love…being back, you appreciate it even more. I just want to come out and work every day, showing my teammates and coaches that I can make plays.”

“I definitely feel I could be targeted a lot, with a lot of the reads, I know I’m a heavy option, and Kirk and I have been in great communication already, talking about the details if this coverage comes up on this play and stuff like that.”

It’s readily apparent that O’Connell will utilize less of the two-tight end offense and more three wide receivers than last year under Klint Kubiak as the offensive coordinator or in 2020 when Gary Kubiak ran the offense. And that singular tight end on the field with the three wide receivers will be Smith as long as he stays healthy (and he looks fully recovered from his knee injury that cost him the entire 2021 season).

Jan 3, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith (84). Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

“In the past three years, we’ve been pretty heavy two tight ends,” Smith said. ‘But I feel Coach K.O. is going to do whatever he needs to do to put the right personnel on the field each play to give us the best opportunities.”

Smith also knows he must continue to be an effective blocker in the running game to help set up the passing game. “It’s pretty similar on blocking, and it makes it a lot easier having Dalvin Cook back there,” he said. “You don’t want to take those run plays off—especially at tight end–because it only opens up the passing game, and you want to be a dominant player on both sides.”

The upcoming 2022 season also is vital for Smith contract-wise, as he can hit free agency after this season if he’s not extended or hit with the franchise tag next March.

I’ve always been high on Smith’s ability to become a Pro Bowl tight end, and he looks primed for a big season which will be even more dynamic if defenses focus on Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen. 

OTA Observations–Coach O’Connell on Thielen and Cousins:

The highlight of Wednesday’s OTA session was an outstanding corner end zone, one-handed TD catch by Thielen. O’Connell paid tribute to Thielen as a red zone ace by saying, “What he’s done in the red zone over his career speaks for itself. He’s got a tremendous feel and knack for understanding where the open grass is as the field shrinks and how he can be a friendly target for the quarterback. That play was an example of Kirk throwing Adam open with some trust.” 

Adam Thielen and Kirk Cousins discuss route running during the Vikings week 17 loss to Chicago.

O’Connell also praised Cousins’ overall offseason work, as he has often done in his recent interviews. “It’s really important to challenge these guys to stack days and not make mental errors,” O’Connell said. “I’m really excited about our quarterbacks, especially Kirk. They control a lot, running the show whether it’s tempo or situational stuff we’re doing. They’re driving, doing a great job, continuing to build.”

In observing the Vikings draft class, it was impressive to see fifth-round running back Ty Chandler flash his speed on two TD receptions in practice, including a long catch and run on a swing pass. 

Vikings Legends hit OTAs:

About 20 Vikings alumni players attended Wednesday’s OTA session, and O’Connell was happy to see them. “It’s one of the cool things we can now do again that hasn’t happened for two years,” he said. “Trying to get these guys around our team. Every time we can have that connection between the past and the present…it’s a special history this organization has, and I think that’s a real positive.”

From a personal standpoint, I enjoyed visiting with past Viking greats who I’ve known for decades and many I worked with on perennial playoff teams such as Scott Studwell, Chuck Foreman, Randall McDaniel, Paul Krause, Dave Osborn, Rickey Young, Eddie McDaniel, Joey Browner, and Leo Lewis.

It was fun to witness a scene with three Vikings Pro Bowl safeties from different generations—Harrison Smith, Krause, and Browner–spending a long time conversing after practice. First-round safety Lewis Cine also stopped by to meet Krause and Browner and perhaps pick up a few tips. 

Around the NFL Observations:

1.Akiem Hicks signs with Tampa Bay: I’m sure the Vikings offensive linemen and Cousins are happy to see Hicks officially leave Chicago when he signed with the Bucs this week. Hicks was a thorn in the side for the Vikings over the past several years as a beast on the defensive line. The Bears D will be much less fierce without Hicks and Khalil Mack (who was traded to the Chargers).

2.A sad story on Jeff Gladney: the 2020 first-round pick of the Vikings, who was released after assault allegations, was killed in a car crash in Dallas last weekend. He had signed with the Cardinals this offseason after he was found not guilty of the assault charge.

3. Aaron Donald turning up the heat on the Rams: The NFL’s best defensive player indicated on a recent podcast that his return is contingent on getting a new deal. When he signed his current contract ($22.5 million per year with three years remaining), he was the highest-paid defensive player in the league, but now he ranks sixth. I’ll be stunned if the Rams don’t resolve this situation with Donald once again taking the top spot on the defensive salary scale.  

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl.