Arguably the top priority for the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL draft, aside from addressing the offensive line, was to come away with a dynamic pass-catching threat. For a team that has struggled to establish a No. 3 receiver behind Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, landing a tight end in Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. adds an element this offense hasn’t previously had.
“We believe Irv is a perfect fit for our new scheme offensively, what they want to do in terms of a mismatch guy,” Minnesota director of college scouting Jamaal Stephenson said. “He is an ‘F’ sort of tight end, a guy we can move around. We can line him up wide, we can line him up in tight [in the slot]. We can use him in the backfield. He has a lot of versatility.”
After the Vikings selected Smith with the 50th overall pick, attention quickly shifted toward what the move means for Kyle Rudolph's future in Minnesota. Given the Vikings’ tight financial situation and the veteran tight end’s $7.625 million cap hit in 2019, drafting Smith appeared to foreshadow that Rudolph’s days in Minnesota could be numbered.
Sources told ESPN the Vikings fielded interest ahead of/during the draft about a possible trade involving Rudolph. A move would have freed up the cap space the team needs not only to sign its new crop of draftees but allow some wiggle room with available spending money for the rest of the offseason.
Rudolph, 29, remains on the roster after nothing panned out last weekend, and it’s possible the tight end could have to rework his contract in the near future. Despite having addressed the issue two weeks ago by saying he’d welcome talks with the organization, a restructuring has yet to pan out. The Vikings could also go the route of cutting Rudolph to clear cap space or look to trade him.
Though having a handful of expensive veterans doesn’t bode well for the Vikings' cap situation, finding a way to keep Rudolph on the team could be a difference-maker for this offense.
The Vikings haven’t had an athletic complement to Rudolph until now. Between Smith and Rudolph, the two tight ends present different styles. While Smith gives the Vikings a speedy target over the middle of the field and has great run-after-the-catch ability, Rudolph is a dependable threat (notably in the red zone) who has churned out consistent production over the course of his eight years in Minnesota and can be relied on for in-line blocking in the run game.
With the Vikings' revamped scheme, this offense has plenty of room to utilize more than one tight end on a regular basis.
In ways that 11 personnel (one running back, three wide receivers, one tight end) doesn’t, using two-TE sets allows for offenses to exploit single-high safety defenses and attack an eight-man box by having four vertical threats in the passing game. From a mismatch standpoint, the sheer number of players lined up in the box forces a defense to account for an additional run gap.
Last season, the Vikings ran 20 percent of their plays out of 12 personnel (one RB, two TEs, two WRs). Quarterback Kirk Cousins notched a 120.8 passer rating, 8.2 yards per attempt and six touchdowns to one interception in that setup, while the run game benefited from its usage, generating 4.2 yards per rush on 102 attempts with three touchdowns.
Bringing in Gary Kubiak, who utilized multiple-tight end sets regularly during his days as an NFL coach, including the Owen Daniels-Vernon Davis combo the season the Broncos won Super Bowl 50, and blending his philosophy with what offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski wants to do could allow the Vikings to become more explosive in the passing game.
“We were predominantly three-wide [in 2018],” Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman said. “I think getting the athletes we have you can do a lot more different with types of personnel to create mismatches.”
His usage might have fluctuated throughout the 2018 season, but Rudolph still earned 13.8 percent of Cousins’ targets while notching 64 receptions for 634 yards (9.9 yards per catch) and four touchdowns. During his final season on a loaded Alabama team, Smith caught 44 passes (20 of which went for first downs) and scored seven touchdowns.
Combining both of their efforts would allow the Vikings to deploy two tight ends at the same time, which probably means less usage for wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, who has 56 catches and one touchdown in his first three seasons. Given how flat the Vikings' passing attack fell down the stretch of last season, mixing its personnel groupings with a move tight end could be a welcome change.
Rudolph’s presence could be vital to the Vikings in making a playoff push in 2019, and according to Spielman, the team plans to utilize both its Pro Bowl veteran and rookie tight ends. The biggest benefit for Minnesota might be to create a totally new look by utilizing packages with multiple tight ends. With Smith in tow, the Vikings might not only have found another explosive receiving threat who can take the top off defenses, but a player who can provide a boost for Rudolph as he turns the chapter to Year 9.