Is Irv Smith the Next Ian Thomas?
Image Credit: Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Irv Smith Jr.

Irv Smith Jr is the next player to attract our attention as we look back on the 2019 NFL rookies. Smith was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings out of Alabama, where he caught 58 passes for 838 yards and 18 touchdowns between 2017 and 2018. He profiled as a “move” tight end in the NFL, a fact made all the more obvious by his combine measurables bearing closer similarities to wide receivers than TEs.

From a production standpoint, his receiving numbers were comparable to other TEs of note.

Smith appeared to be a player who was not exactly primed to do all the dirty work a TE would expect to do. But at least he could contribute as a receiver. Let’s see how that went, shall we?

By The Numbers

Smith saw at least three targets in a game ten times in 2019 and six in a game three times. Indeed, between Weeks 7 and 10 he was something of a focal point of the Vikings passing attack.

Across the whole season, however, Smith commanded only an 11% share of the Vikings targets. Smith had a single week as a top-12 player in PPR formats. He scored 11 points in Week 7. This was during his “hot” streak between Weeks 6 and 11 when he averaged 8 PPR points per game. This hot streak, perhaps not exactly surprisingly, coincided with Smith’s heaviest workload of the season. Smith played on approximately 60% of the Vikings offensive snaps in 2019. But between Weeks 8 and 13, this percentage jumped to 72%.

It didn’t help Smith that he was on the same team as Kyle Rudolph. It didn’t help Rudolph that he was on the same team as Smith either, at least from a production point of view. The two gloriously canceled each other out, matching each other almost target for target and yard for yard, although Rudolph had the more potent nose for the end zone.

Historical Comps

In order to find players who enjoyed comparable seasons, I did what we’ve done in the past when carrying out this series. I set the RotoViz Screener to find rookies from 2010 to 2019 and selected some basic production and usage numbers as variables. Then I asked the Screener to find seasons comparable to my target player — in this instance, Smith.

Smith’s age as a rookie is something that should definitely be considered, especially with regard to his potential as a fantasy producer. Blair Andrews has done great work looking at the link between rookie age and fantasy production, with a strong correlation to potential TE1s down the line to players whose rookie season came when they were 21.

Age notwithstanding though, this cohort shows a list of players who flashed as rookies after coming into the NFL with strong athletic pedigrees. This is especially true of David Njoku and Ian Thomas. But this list also tells a tale of youngsters who had to spend their rookie year learning their trade. They were also probably behind a more seasoned (though probably not at the time necessarily a better) player. One thing in Smith’s favor straight away is how efficient a receiver he was in comparison to his comparables, with the exception of Thomas.

To get a possible range of outcomes for Smith’s 2020, let’s look at how these players fared in their second seasons.

Two possible comps missed their entire second season due to injury.  Jace Amaro and Maxx Williams never truly got over this early setback. However, both Gerald Everett and Njoku saw increased opportunities and also increased efficiency. As for Thomas? Well, he was trapped on a somewhat disappointing offense behind a veteran TE who, although a fine player in his pomp, should probably have been moved on to allow him more chances to get on the field. Wait a minute, that sounds familiar.

2020 Outlook

At the time of writing, Irv Smith still has Kyle Rudolph with him in the Vikings TE room. This is not an immediate death knell to both of their chances of production, as we’ve seen, although a concentration of targets to just one player would make the Vikings TE a position to savor in fantasy football. In 2019, the Vikings lined up in 12 personnel (two TEs) on 35 % of their snaps, the third-highest rate in the NFL. Interestingly, they passed out of this grouping 60% of the time. This was way above the league average of just 45%.

Kevin Stefanski is no longer the offensive coordinator for the Vikings. But I imagine that Gary Kubiak will stick to a similar script. However, Smith is still likely to be contending for targets with not only Rudolph but also Stefon Diggs1 and Adam Thielen. And we can’t forget Dalvin Cook. That’s a lot of target competition on any team, but even more for one that attempted the 10th fewest passes in neutral game situations a year ago.

This strong commitment to establishing the run, and the target competition, is probably a strong factor behind Smith’s present ADP over at the FFPC. He’s currently the TE22 in terms of ADP, behind players like Njoku, Jack Doyle and Will Dissly.2 But it is interesting that he is being taken a good two rounds ahead of Kyle Rudolph. While the 2020 outlook remains unclear, Smith remains an intriguing dynasty option, much like Ian Thomas was a year ago.

Image Credit: Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Irv Smith Jr.
  1. Assuming that Diggs is not attempting to force his way out of Minnesota, after finally growing weary of Kirk Cousins and his antics.  (back)
  2. Although I’m sure Dissly’s ADP will begin to plummet after the Seahawks signed Greg Olsen.  (back)

Neil Dutton

Lead Writer, soft spot for the tight end position. Will never stop loving Duke Johnson.
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