Vikings TE Fantasy Preview

Tyler Conklin / Irv Smith Jr.
Nov 8, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith (84) celebrates with tight end Tyler Conklin (83) after catching a touchdown against the Detroit Lions during the first quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

One of the Vikings bigger issues in 2020 was a lack of receiver depth behind Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson. This offseason, the Vikings signed Dede Westbrook to presumably handle some more of the target load, but he has not played yet this preseason.

While Minnesota’s WR depth is a question, the Vikings have a potential breakout star at the tight end position. Throughout the 2020 campaign, Kyle Rudolph had his struggles with injuries as well as production. This led to his lowest career target total over 12 games played. Rudolph’s missed time down the stretch of the season led to the emergence of one Irv Smith Jr.

The 23-year-old Smith is headed into his third NFL season, but it’s his first with an opportunity as TE1. Typically, tight end has been a bit shallow in terms of production. 2020 was a little more lucrative as seven players players eclipsed the 150-point mark at the position. We could see more of the same in 2021, especially with Kyle Pitts being added to the mix.

A Look Back at 2020

Kyle Rudolph took much of the Vikings tight end production early in the season. Through 10 games, Rudolph had 28 receptions, 334 yards, and a touchdown. Contrastly, Smith had 15 receptions, 182 yards, and two touchdowns. Rudolph nearly doubled Smith’s production other than the TD numbers.

Following that week 11 game though, Rudolph got hurt, and Smith took over. Smith missed weeks 12 and 13, but over the final four games, here is what his stats looked like:

20 targets

15 recceptions

183 yards

3 TDs

This final stretch of games led to an average of just over nine fantasy points per game, for a 16-game pace of 145.2 fantasy points. If he were able to create that production, it would’ve made him the 13th ranked tight end. Keep in mind too, this was Smith being thrown into the fire with Rudolph’s injury, and he was coming off his own injury as well. It’s not out of the realm off possibility that he plays much better in 2021.

Previewing 2021

As mentioned, the Vikings are attempting to create depth in their wide receiver room in 2021. The free agent signing of Westbrook is just one move, but they also drafted Ihmir Smith-Marsette (dubbed ISM on this site), and they have made sure to give K.J. Osborne and Chad Beebe plenty off reps in preseason.

Ideally the Vikings will also be a run first offense, assuming Dalvin Cook can stay healthy. That said, there are signs pointing to Zimmer desiring his offense to be high-flying and quickly moving down the field. He said in a press conference earlier this week that the Vikings need to get the ball down the field more, “If you’re going to throw five-yard checkdowns, it’s going to take 20 of them.”

In the open field, it’s unlikely that Smith will get a ton of looks, but if the Vikings can move the ball downfield more often, he will inevitably be a threat in the red zone. In 13 games played, Smith recorded five touchdowns despite battling Rudolph for looks, starting just seven games, and having his own injury issues.

Adam Thielen was also a massive red zone threat, recording 14 TDs. The 31-year-old will still have a big role, but the Vikings may try to take a load off him in 2021, leading to more targets for Smith. If we can count on Smith being a touchdown threat every week, there is no doubt that he could be a fantasy TE1 this season.

Tyler Conklin Breakout Year?

With Rudolph’s absence, it wasn’t just Smith who put up numbers down the stretch of the season. Tyler Conklin was listed as a starter in just two games, but over the final four, he actually had more passes thrown his way (21) than Smith did (20). He wasn’t quite as efficient as Smith, but he showed plenty of talent as a route runner, and he can be dynamic in the open field.

Obviously, you’d like to see more touchdowns from him if the fourth-year TE is going to be relevant in fantasy. Conklin recorded just one touchdown in 2020, but again, he didn’t get a ton of chances as a receiver until the final four games of the season. There is one thing for certain though. The Vikings system is built for tight ends to succeed. Often times, Minnesota run two-TE sets, so there will be chances for both.

That said, if we have to throw Conklin into the mix, and Smith is not just competing with Justin Jefferson, Thielen, Cook, and Westbrook for looks, it could limit Smith’s fantasy ceiling. We’ve seen some injury issues with Smith, so while Smith can be looked at as a TE1, it may be worth stashing Conklin just in case he has to jump in every once in awhile.