EAGAN, Minn. -- On a recent spring day, Irv Smith Jr. walked purposefully to the line of scrimmage. He took his place next to Minnesota Vikings left tackle Christian Darrisaw and waited for the snap. Then he jogged a few steps forward, turned into the flat and hauled in a toss from quarterback Kirk Cousins.
It was a small but significant step for Smith, a rising star who missed the entire 2021 season because of a right knee injury and still has not been cleared for full participation in OTA workouts. This drill was conducted at half speed, designed to sharpen understanding of the team's new offensive playbook, and Smith's presence provided a brief preview of what Vikings fans and fantasy players alike are hoping 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 is coming off his injury," said coach Kevin O'Connell, "and also understanding that we can really get a lot out of every day knowing that he is preparing himself for when he is 100% ready to go."
Smith is nine months out from suffering meniscus damage during the Vikings' final preseason game of 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, having allowed 2021 starter Tyler Conklin to depart via free agency and adding only lightly to the position during the offseason.
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 take a tight end (South Carolina's Nick Muse), the Vikings have made clear they are counting on Smith to be their primary tight end this season.
"Absolutely," O'Connell said. "I've said this before, going back and watching some of his tape even before the injury, I know there was a lot of folks excited about him last fall before that injury happened. Some of the success he's had -- both with how we're going to use him and ultimately where he is at in his career -- he's ready to absorb all of this and be in a position to go play fast, go play with a bunch of confidence that he's going to be a major part of what we do. It's just making sure we're doing it in a really responsible way as he continues to progress back."
Smith, a second-round pick in 2019, caught a modest total of 66 passes in his first two seasons. The excitement about his return is largely based on the highlight-reel training camp he put together in 2021 before the injury. In an offense that also includes wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen and running back Dalvin Cook -- and a new scheme that O'Connell promises will balance the run and pass -- it's fair to wonder just how active Smith will be in the Vikings' passing game.
History provides no dramatic insights. O'Connell was an 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 -- finished among the NFL's top 10 in targets for tight ends. Two of them -- 2019 Washington and 2021 Rams -- were among the bottom five. But O'Connell has pledged to build his scheme in Minnesota around the skill players he has, and he knew one key fact before he took the job: Cousins has historically thrown a lot to tight ends.
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 he became a full-time NFL starter in 2015, Cousins ranks No. 4 among NFL quarterbacks in tight end targets (810) and touchdowns thrown to tight ends (49).
O'Connell has made clear that playing time and opportunities for targets will depend in part on blocking skills. And while it hasn't been discussed much amid excitement about his potential impact on the passing game, Smith performed well in the run game during his first two seasons. In fact, he ranked No. 1 among tight ends in ESPN's run block win rate metric (84.1%) in 2019.
He didn't get enough snaps to qualify for the leaderboard in 2020, but ranked No. 7 (79.6%) among those who were on the field for at least 500 snaps.
"No matter how much [the tight end position has] evolved," O'Connell said, "I still think the element of being a three-down tight end and having a role in the run game, being able to protect when we want to max protect and kind of have those guys in there ... that's ultimately where I think the position is still and will be."
Smith spoke with a group of reporters last week, his smile stretching ear-to-ear. The joy he felt amid his initial return clearly had not dissipated. Cook walked over, grabbed him around the shoulder and said: “Welcome back. We've got to have him."
Smith dropped his head and laughed.
"I had a great camp [last year]," he said later, "and was looking forward to the season. But that momentum and everything hasn't slowed down. I'm very confident once I [fully] get back on the field, I'm going to be 100%, and we’re going to keep building on that."