Why Coach Kevin O’Connell is convinced that Irv Smith Jr. will be a ‘big part’ of what the Vikings do in ’22

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EAGAN, Minn. – On a recent spring day, Irv Smith Jr. went. targeted to the line. He took a seat next to Minnesota Vikings left tackle Christian Darrisaw and waited for the snap. Then he jogged a few steps forward, turned into the apartment and dragged a throw from quarterback Kirk Cousins.

It was a small but significant step for Smith, a rising star who missed the entire 2021 season due to a right knee injury and still has not been approved for full participation in OTA training. This exercise was performed at half speed, designed to sharpen the understanding of the team’s new offensive playbook, and Smith’s presence provided a brief taste of what both Viking fans and fantasy players hope to see from him when the regular season begins.

“For Irv, this whole spring is a great example of a player figuring out where he’s going from his injury,” coach Kevin O’Connell said, “and also understanding that we can really get a lot out of every day by to know that he is preparing for when he is 100% ready to go. “

Smith is nine months out from suffering meniscus injuries during the Vikings’ last preseason game in 2021, and the organizational goal is to have him ready for full participation at the start of training camp in late July. O’Connell and general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah have expressed confidence that he will be ready, both in their public statements as well as their actions, after allowing 2021 starter Tyler Conklin to leave via free agency and only added the position slightly during the off-season.

Any objective reading of their tight-end depth chart would show Smith clearly at the top, with free-agent acquisition Johnny Mundt next in line. And after waiting until the seventh round of the draft to get a tight end (South Carolina’s Nick Muse), the Vikings have made it clear that they expect Smith to be their primary tight end this season.

“Absolutely,” O’Connell said. “I’ve said this before, when I went back and saw some of his ties even before the injury, I know there were a lot of people who were excited about him last fall before that injury happened. Some of the success he has had – both with how we are going to use him and ultimately where he is in his career – he is ready to absorb all this and be in a position to play fast, go and play with a lot of confidence, “He’s going to play a big part in what we do. It’s just to make sure we do it in a really responsible way while he keeps going back.”

Smith, a second-round pick in 2019, received a total of 66 passes in his first two seasons. The excitement of his return is largely based on the highlight-wheel training camp he put together in 2021 before the injury. With an offense that also includes wide receiver Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen and running back Dalvin Cook – and a new plan that O’Connell promises will balance running and passing – it’s fair to speculate on how active Smith will be in the Vikings ‘passing game.

The story provides no dramatic insight. O’Connell was the NFL assistant coach for seven seasons before the Vikings hired him in January. Three of those teams – the 2015 Browns, along with Washington in 2017 and 2018 – ended up among the NFL’s top 10 in goals for close ends. Two of them – the 2019 Washington and the 2021 Rams – were among the bottom five. But O’Connell has promised to build his Minnesota plan around the skills he has, and he knew one important fact before he took the job: Cousins ​​has historically thrown a lot of pressure.

O’Connell and Cousins ​​worked together in 2017 in Washington, when O’Connell was the Commanders’ quarterbacks coach and Cousins ​​their quarterback. Cousins ​​targeted tight ends 127 times that season, the ninth-most in the NFL.

Since becoming a full-time NFL starter in 2015, Cousins ​​ranks No. 4 among NFL quarterbacks in tight-end goals (810) and touchdowns thrown to tight-enders (49).

O’Connell has made it clear that playing time and scoring opportunities will depend in part on blocking abilities. And while not much has been discussed in excitement about his potential impact on the passing game, Smith performed well in the running game in his first two seasons. In fact, he ranked No. 1 among close ends in ESPN’s run block win rate metric (84.1%) in 2019.

He did not get enough snaps to qualify for the leaderboard in 2020, but ranked No. 7 (79.6%) among those on the field in at least 500 snaps.

“No matter how much [the tight end position has] evolved, “said O’Connell,” I still believe in the element of being a three-down tight end and having a role in the running game, of being able to protect when we want to protect maximum and so to speak have those guys in there. .. that’s ultimately where I think the position still is and will be. “

Smith spoke to a group of reporters last week, and his smile stretched ear-to-ear. The joy he felt during his first return had clearly not disappeared. Cook walked over, grabbed him by the shoulder and said, “Welcome back. We need to have him.”

Smith bowed his head and laughed.

“I had a great camp [last year], “he said later,” and looked forward to the season. But that momentum and everything has not been slowed down. I’m very confident when I first [fully] Get back on track, I want to be 100%, and we will continue to build on that. “

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