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What To Expect From Irv Smith Jr. In 2021

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Vikings released veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph, who had been with the team since 2011. Rudolph ends his Vikings career with 453 receptions for 4,488 yards and 48 touchdowns.

But in 2020, Rudolph caught his fewest touchdowns as a Viking, hauling in just one in 12 games. 2020 was also the first time since 2015 that Rudolph had a snap rate under 78 percent. Meanwhile, second-year tight end Irv Smith Jr. pulled in five touchdowns.

Smith is entering his age-23 season and appears to have been handed the reins as Minnesota's No. 1 tight end going forward. Will that translate into high-end fantasy production? Is it time to get aboard the hype train for Smith, or will he just be another promising tight end who never really finds his stride in the NFL?

Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers won two writing awards and received 12 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. A big congrats to our very own Byron Lindeque (Golf) and Jordan McAbee (NASCAR) for both winning Writer Of The Year awards! Be sure to follow RotoBaller's analysis and advice all year long, and win more. Win More With RotoBaller!

 

What Irv Smith Jr. Can Do In Minnesota

Let's start with what Smith's ceiling is.

Smith -- who runs a 4.63 40-yard dash -- is maybe an inch or two undersized, but he makes up for that with his speed. Since 2000, his 40-time at the Combine was seventh-fastest of all 6'2'' tight ends. For comparison's sake, that puts him about a tenth-of-a-second quicker than Jordan Reed, who was a monster to defend in his prime when healthy.

Despite sharing his role with Rudolph and Tyler Conklin last year, Smith's seven deep targets ranked 13th at the position. His average target distance of 8.3 ranked 10th and he was second at the position in fantasy points per target.

On a per-play basis, Smith did about all he could with his limited snaps.

Something else worth taking note of is that the five-game sample we have over the past two seasons of Smith playing without Rudolph looks good. Per RotoViz:

Irv Smith Jr. Game Splits With Kyle Rudolph

Sure, it's five games, so we shouldn't read too much into that small sample, but Smith averaged 10.68 PPR points per game without Rudolph, seeing an uptick in all his numbers. Over the course of a full season, that would equate to 51 receptions for 621 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Now, look, football isn't played via projections, so don't take that above paragraph as me saying "hey, Irv Smith Jr. is catching 10 touchdowns in 2021." But it's good to note that when Rudolph wasn't on the field, Smith was absorbing Rudolph's work. And Smith's role as the No. 2 tight end in Minnesota had also been cutting into Rudolph's production, as he averaged 6.98 PPR points in 21 career games with Smith versus 9.11 in his 115 other games. Smith's presence has already been felt in Minnesota, and now we're anticipating he'll be unleashed in 2021.

If you're more of a tape person than a stats person, you can also see Smith's potential ooze out on film:

You can see in these clips that Smith makes some tough catches over the middle, plus gets involved deeper down the field. You see him finish in traffic. You see him absorb contact. You see a lot of very good stuff from Smith.

See? This is from 2019, but you can see him making an athletic catch here on a well-run route. As mentioned above, Smith is about an inch shorter than the average tight end, but that doesn't mean Smith is short. It's still a mismatch when Smith is going up against a lot of defensive backs, and you can see here how that mismatch turns into production for the then-rookie.

At his best, Smith is someone who can be one of the league's most productive tight ends. If we take that projection from above that had Smith at 171 PPR points in a full season without Rudolph, he'd have been the overall TE6. That projection includes 10 touchdowns, so I think we can probably say that Smith's ceiling is around there. With Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen needing targets as well, Smith likely doesn't break into the ELITE ELITE production level at the position, but he can be good.

 

How Secure Is Smith's Role?

Of course, it's hard to talk about ceilings without also talking about floors.

We have a nice track record of things with Kirk Cousins in Minnesota that suggests tight end is third in the target order after Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson (playing the role formerly performed by Stefon Diggs.) Jefferson was just a rookie last year and should see an increase in his role in 2021 as he grows even more familiar with this offense. Add in that Dalvin Cook had 54 targets last year and you can see that there's a lot of mouths to feed in Minny.

The other factor that impacts Smith's potential production is the presence of another tight end. Tyler Conklin was targeted 26 times last season. Most of that production came late in the year. In the four games that Rudolph missed, Conklin averaged 5.25 targets per game. So while Smith was undoubtedly the No. 1 tight end with Rudolph out, Conklin ended up with a fairly sizable role.

A big part of that is because Minnesota ran a lot of 12 personnel. They had 226 snaps in that position grouping (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers), making up 22 percent of the team's total offensive snaps. They also ran 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends, one receiver) on nine percent of their snaps. That reliance on double-TE sets meant that when Rudolph was out, Smith was still sharing the field with someone for a good chunk of his snaps.

I think a pretty clear possibility exists that Smith will continue to share the field with another tight end, who'll siphon off short-yardage work, which will keep Smith from reaching his full potential in 2021.

 

Fantasy Outlook

So, how should we be viewing Smith in fantasy this offseason?

He definitely has a TE1 ceiling and while there are reasons for concern about his floor just because of the sheer number of people who'll also get targets in Minnesota and the fact that Minnesota was 25th in passing plays per game last year, I think we should be cautiously high on him for 2021.

I'd rank Smith as a low-end TE1 with upside right now. His 2020 production says to me that Smith should at least break out of that TE2 quagmire, though I just don't think the opportunities are available to get him up to the top-five at the position unless he has an outlier season in terms of touchdowns.

As for what to do with Smith right now, I think this is a bad time to try trading for him because his value just spiked. Don't make a bad trade just because you're desperate at tight end. And for managers who have Smith, definitely explore the market, but do so with the knowledge that sometimes holding onto a young tight end who should give you TE1 production for multiple seasons is better than trading him away, even if you sell high on him.



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