Irv Smith's Fantasy Football Outlook Isn't as Promising as It Seems

There is plenty of hope among fantasy managers that 2021 could be the breakout season for tight end Irv Smith Jr. of the Minnesota Vikings. A major obstacle to his playing time has been removed, with Kyle Rudolph now in New York as a member of the Giants.

But what can we truly expect from Smith in the new season?

Slow Career Start

Smith has seen a relatively quiet start to his NFL career.

In two seasons in which he has played 29 games, he has drawn 90 targets, 66 of which he has reeled in for 676 yards and 7 touchdowns. That's an average of 2.3 receptions per outing. Smith has recorded five or more receptions in a game just three times.

In 2020, he finished 31st among all tight ends in receptions (30) and 27th in receiving yards (365). He managed just 7.4 PPR points per game, good for just TE24. But there were some encouraging signs from Smith last season, so don't be disheartened just yet.

Smith was able to be fairly efficient when the ball came his way. He finished eighth at the position in both yards per target (8.5) and yards per reception (12.2). Smith also earned his signal-caller a quarterback rating of 134.4 whenever he was targeted, the second-highest mark among all tight ends. His 2.24 fantasy points per target were also good for second place.

Competing for Opportunities

There is no question that Smith's opportunities and production were hampered by the presence of Rudolph over the last two seasons. In 25 games in which they both played, Smith played just 60.5% of the Vikings' offensive snaps. He commanded an average of just 2.8 targets, 2.0 receptions, 19.7 yards, and 5.1 PPR points per game.

But in four games without Rudolph, all of which came at the back end of last season, Smith's production was much more attractive. His targets rose to 5.0 a game, with 3.8 catches and 45.8 yards. Smith more than doubled his fantasy output, averaging 12.8 PPR points.

Rudolph's exit should open the door for more opportunities for Rudolph to get on the field and put up some numbers. But there are factors at work that give me pause for thought and make me question whether a genuine breakout is really in the cards.

Significant Obstacles

There is certainly room for a third option in the Vikings' passing game to emerge behind Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen -- unless you think Dede Westbrook is going to be a thing in 2021, which I doubt. But the Vikings might not need that third option if they repeat their tendencies of 2020.

The Vikings operated at a 50:50 pass-to-run rate in 2020 whenever the game was within one score. Even if they trailed by a score, they also were just as likely to run as they were to pass. This is a team that wants to establish the run, and as such, there may not be a whole load of opportunities for pass catchers other than Jefferson and Thielen.

The Vikings have the 18th-easiest schedule in 2021, according to Sharp Football Stats, and given this fairly neutral slate, they are likely to lean heavily on the ground game.

There is also the fact that Smith is not the runaway leader to get all the work that Rudolph has left behind. Despite the improved production in those final four 2020 games, Smith's opportunities were scarily similar in number to those of fellow tight end Tyler Conklin.

Weeks 14-17 without RudolphIrv SmithTyler Conklin
Snaps203 (70%)202 (69%)
Receiving Yards183168
Air Yards per Target8.23.4

Vikings coaches have also been slow to praise Smith this offseason, while they have talked glowingly about Conklin. Now coaches say a lot, and their actions are often different from what they earlier said. But the signs are not positive that the Vikings are ready to unleash Smith in a major way in the coming season.

Irv Smith's 2021 Fantasy Football Projection

Fantasy drafters are not quite ready to fully buy into Smith just yet, it seems. He's being taken as the TE13 in NFC drafts. This is fairly consistent with our thoughts regarding Smith, as we have him projected at TE13.

At the moment, Smith looks more like a tight end fantasy managers can stream in standard-sized leagues in the early days of the 2021 season.

But as to someone you can start with confidence week in and week out? He's not there yet.