Rookie TE Smith Jr. quickly becoming bigger part of Vikings’ offense

Minnesota Vikings rookie tight end Irv Smith Jr. is coming around, slowly but surely.

During Sunday’s come-from-behind 27-23 win over Denver, Smith caught three passes for 20 yards and a touchdown — his first career score, and one that finally put points on the board for Minnesota and launched the Vikings’ ferocious comeback.

“It felt amazing. It was a long time coming,” Smith said after the game. “You want the first touchdown to come in a big game. I feel like I made my mark with that.”

Smith has been making his mark on the Vikings’ offense of late, too.

Over the first six games of the season, Smith was targeted just eight times and caught seven passes for 93 yards. Since then, in the last five contests, Smith has seen 24 targets, hauling in 20 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown.

His increasing involvement in the game plan is even more evident when looking at the snap counts. In the first seven games, Smith played no more than 55% of snaps. Over the past two games, Smith played 74% against Dallas and a career-high 81% of the snaps Sunday against Denver.

A steady boost of Smith’s usage was exactly how the Vikings brass drew it up.

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“I think he’s going to be an even bigger player as he moves forward,” Vikings offensive advisor Gary Kubiak said Tuesday. “I think they knew it was coming, how quick it would come and the fact that we’ve got Rudy (Kyle Rudolph), we’ve got Conk (Tyler Conklin) here, we were able to bring Irv along a little slowly and now we’re asking a great deal of him.”

When the Vikings selected Smith in the second round (50th overall) in the 2019 draft, many thought it signified the end of Rudolph’s reign in Minnesota. After all, Smith offered quarterback Kirk Cousins another weapon red-zone weapon at 6-foot-2 and 242 pounds and is much speedier than the veteran. But that hasn’t been the case.

Like Smith, Rudolph saw a slow start to the season, catching just nine passes for 72 yards in the first six games. But Rudolph has benefited from Cousins’ hot streak as well and has hauled in 20 receptions and five touchdowns over the last five weeks.

Even Conklin got involved Sunday, catching two passes for 28 yards, including a big conversion on third-and-14 late in the third quarter.

“We know our time is coming,” Smith said. “Every day at practice we work, all three of us. I learn so much from Conklin and Kyle and they learn from me. We feed off each other. It’s a lot of good energy in that room. It’s a lot of fun playing with them.”

With the athleticism and versatility of Smith and the consistent presence of Rudolph, the Vikings have the ability to line up in two- and sometimes three-tight end sets with a legitimate threat to either run or pass the ball downfield.

“We’ve got three really good tight ends and they’ve been healthy, so we’ve had them up every week,” Kubiak said. “It’s just the give and take and what gives you the best chance to make some big plays to still be consistent running the ball.”