Zimmer Tapers Excitement on Irv Smith Jr. Potential Breakout Season

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

Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has different plans at the tight end position for 2021 than you.

Or so he says.

One of the most hyped theories of the Vikings offseason involves the takeover of TE1 duties by third-year pass-catcher, Irv Smith Jr. Kyle Rudolph, who played in Minnesota for 10 years, left the organization for the New York Giants in March, opening a vivid roster hole for Smith to ascend.

Well, Smith could still do that, but it’s not that clear-cut, if Mike Zimmer’s words are to be trusted. On Wednesday, he pumped the brakes on a target-heavy season for Smith — something many Vikings pundits and fans have forecasted for a few months.

This is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. Foremost, the Vikings do not employ a sure-fire WR3 as of June 1, so it was surmised that Smith could sneak in and serve as a defacto WR3. Zimmer’s words directly contradict such a theory. Instead, what can be derived from the Zimmer quote is “more of the same” at tight end. That is, just as Smith and Rudolph split passing-game targets in 2019 and 2010 — so will Smith and Tyler Conklin in 2021.

While it was assumed that Conklin would act as TE2 this fall, he was not pegged as a heavy-target asset — until today by Zimmer. Either Zimmer is lying — he’s done that before pertaining to roster operations — or the Smith breakout season will be a Smith-Conklin combo platter.

Some fans are delighted about the maturation of Tyler Conklin. The following is hyperbole mixed in with some comedy, but folks don’t usually throw out tweets like this unless there is some palpable enthusiasm:

Ergo, we’re arrived at the “compare Tyler Conklin to Rob Gronkowski” portion of the season, although this tweet was presumably delivered in jest.

Conklin notched a modest 52.6 Pro Football Focus score in 2020, hauling in 19 receptions for 194 yards and one touchdown. In the final four games of the pandemic season, Conklin registered 30+ receiving yards in each game — an impressive finish to 2020 with Rudolph banged up.

Get used to it; it appears Zimmer has lofty plans for Conklin, previously undervalued by Vikings echo chambers. Most folks knew that Conklin would become a TE2 on the depth chart, but his role might spike into a hybrid or shared TE1 gig if the Zimmer pseudo-announcement is accurate.

This should not be construed as Smith slander, though. The Alabama alumnus has already scored the ninth-most Vikings touchdowns of the Mike Zimmer era. He’s scored seven times in two seasons.

During the Super Bowl Era, here’s how Smith fares versus other tight ends through an age-22 season:

  • Rob Gronkowski (28)
  • Aaron Hernandez (13)
  • Hunter Henry (8)
  • David Njoku (8)
  • Irv Smith Jr. (7)
  • Raymond Chester (7)
  • Todd Heap (7)
  • Johnny Mitchell (7)
  • Charle Young (7)
  • Jason Witten (7)

Smith is also rather young. He’s 20 months younger than Jeff Gladney, a legally maligned cornerback that was drafted on year after Smith.

And for posterity, here’s how Smith’s career beginning compares to the departed Kyle Rudolph’s:

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