Vikings’ Smith aims high after time spent with NFL’s top TEs

EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — Irv Smith Jr. has become the top tight end for the Minnesota Vikings, bringing his enviable blend of speed and strength to what promises to be a more prominent role in his third season.

Smith has bigger goals for his burgeoning career, too, with a desired place among the game’s best players at his position. That’s precisely where he was over three days this summer on a steamy practice field in Nashville, Tennessee.

The informal, grassroots event was dubbed “ Tight End University ” by organizers Travis Kelce, George Kittle and Greg Olsen, two of the league’s current best and one recently retired standout. Smith was invited to the group of more than 40 players, for tight ends only.

“We just kind of came together and spoke our language in a sense and just talked about the position,” Smith said. “It’s a very unique position in a sense, because you do a lot of different things on the field, and it’s a lot of fun having all those guys doing the same things.”

Arrangements for a sequel in 2022 are already underway, and who knows where Smith will fit among the NFL’s unofficial hierarchy in a year? Kelce (Kansas City), Kittle (San Francisco) and Rob Gronkowski (Tampa Bay) are widely considered the established elite, but there’s plenty of room for a not-yet-bloomed player like Smith to rise up and reach a higher tier.

The departure of Kyle Rudolph as a free agent to the New York Giants created an opening for Smith in a scheme that has long been friendly to tight ends and often uses two of them at a time depending on the situation. Tyler Conklin also will move up in stature in the offense, with Rudolph, who was the team’s longest-tenured player, now gone. Brandon Dillon and rookies Zach Davidson and Shane Zylstra are the other tight ends currently on the roster.

Smith has shown some blocking prowess in the two years he’s been with the Vikings after being drafted in the second round out of Alabama, always a must at this position in a run-oriented system. His ability to elude linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, either from the traditional end spot, split wide or even out of the backfield provides a significant amount of growth potential as a frequent target for quarterback Kirk Cousins.

“He’s looked explosive. For us, it’s about helping the team win, not so much about how many yards or how many catches he gets, but he’s done a really nice job,” coach Mike Zimmer said.

Smith, the son of former New Orleans tight end Irv Smith Sr., just turned 23 a few weeks ago. He has 676 yards and seven touchdowns in two NFL seasons.

“I’ve definitely come far, just looking back and reflecting. I do a lot of that for myself, but also I like to look forward as well. I try to stay where my feet are,” Smith said. “When I look back and reflect on what I’ve done in my career so far, it’s been good, but I want to be great and leave a legacy.”

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