Is this the year for the Irv Smith Jr. breakout?

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With the departure of Kyle Rudolph to the New York Giants, the Minnesota Vikings and their fans are hoping that 2021 is the year of the Irv Smith Jr. breakout. Since being drafted by the franchise in the second round of the 2019 NFL draft, Smith has shown flashes of the promise he offered while at the University of Alabama, but it has yet to truly come to fruition.

In two seasons of action, Smith has appeared in 29 regular season games with 66 receptions for 676 yards and seven NFL touchdowns. Last season was arguably his most productive as a professional, as he hauled in 30 passes for 365 yards and five touchdowns, setting career-high marks in yardage and touchdowns. Smith also averaged 12.2 yards per reception a season ago.

Now with Rudolph in New York, the tight end position is Smith’s and his alone. Minnesota runs a great deal of 21 offensive personnel — the Vikings ran that package on 26% of their snaps last season, behind only the New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers — and with good reason. They have two top-flight receivers in Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, they are one of the rare teams that employs a fullback (C.J. Ham), and as an offense they rely on the running game and then using play-action off those run designs, and doing so out of 21 personnel often gives Kirk Cousins the chance to throw against base defensive personnel packages.

Given that, Smith might indeed be in position for that offensive breakout.

Some of his usage from the preseason points to the potential. Take this play against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2 of the NFL preseason:

The Vikings align with Cousins under center and employ, you guessed it, 21 offensive personnel. Smith is aligned to the left side of the formation. The Colts respond with, you guessed it, a base 4-3 package.

Cousins fakes a toss to the left before rolling back to the right, and the Vikings set up a three-level read with a vertical route from wide receiver K.J. Osborne, a slice route from wide receiver Chad Beebe to the flat, and then Smith working across the field on the deep in-cut. Cousins is under pressure, so the throw comes late and falls incomplete, but you can see the design.

Offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak also likes to use Smith on those slice routes to the flat, and that is a great change-of-pace off their run designs. On split-zone run plays, tight ends like Smith are often tasked with blocking across the formation. After showing that a few times, Kubiak then can simply have Smith release to the flat off the same look. Like this against the Colts:

Once more you see the three-level read set up for the QB off this play-action design. Beebe runs a deep corner route from the left side and is the downfield option, while Osborne comes across the field as the intermediate read. Smith executes the slice route to the flat. Cousins rolls to the left after the fake toss, and eventually checks the ball down to Smith after scanning downfield.

While these plays did not produce epic results, they highlight how Smith can be used in the offense. Thankfully for Vikings fans hoping to see more from the young TE, they got to see just that on Friday night against the Kansas City Chiefs. First, take this completion from Cousins to Smith:

Once more you can see the various concepts previously discussed at work. Cousins lines up under center and the Vikings employ a 21 personnel package against a base 4-3 from Kansas City. Cousins carries out a play-action fake, and Smith runs the crossing route from right-to-left, working against safety Daniel Sorensen. With the Chiefs in man coverage, Cousins passes on the more aggressive routes downfield and targets his tight end, accelerating away from the safety, for a 23-yard gain wherein 17 or the yards came after the catch.

Later on in the drive, you see another throw in Smith’s direction, and this concept should also look familiar to the readers:

Play-action with Cousins rolling out. Split-zone design with the offensive line flowing to the left and Smith “blocking” across the formation before releasing to the flat. Only this time Cousins throws to the TE quickly in the down, and Smith is able to turn a throw one-yard downfield into a 16-yard gain.

We know what the Vikings offense is going to look like, given the influence of Kubiak, the ability of Dalvin Cook and their rushing attack, and the duo of Jefferson and Thielen. But Smith could play a huge role in this offense give the core philosophy, and that third-year breakout may indeed be upon us.