The Minnesota Vikings are entering a crucial season. They just fired longtime head coach Mike Zimmer and longtime general manager Rick Spielman. Now rookie head coach Kevin O’Connell takes the reins of a team that certainly has enough talent to reach the postseason.

However, if O’Connell fails to take his team to the playoffs, the Vikings will be forced to consider the option of a rebuild. With so much at stake in this year, Minnesota will need to count on some of their players to exceed expectations. There are many guys on the roster who will, but the biggest candidate for a breakout year is easily tight end Irv Smith Jr.

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Vikings X-Factor To Emerge In 2022 NFL Season

Irv Smith Jr. 

Seeing Smith’s name here won’t be a surprise for Vikings fans. 2021 was supposed to be Smith’s big coming out party after he was taken in the second round of the 2019 draft. The Alabama product has a unique blend of size, speed, route running, and hands that is seldom found among tight ends. However, injury issues derailed his 2021 season. A meniscus tear in the preseason had him miss the entire year, but Smith should be 100% healthy for the 2022 season. That alone will allow him a huge uptick in production.

The playing time is also there for the taking for Smith. In his first two years in the league, he was forced to sit behind Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Conklin, two legitimately good tight ends. Neither one is on the roster for the 2022 campaign. The next tight end listed on the roster is Ben Ellefson, a second-year player who has one career catch. Smith should dominate the snaps at his position, and it shouldn’t even be close.

Some may worry about Smith’s target share in this offense, but that’s not a legitimate concern. While the Vikings do have a fantastic trio of receivers in Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and KJ Osborn, that’s never stopped Minnesota tight ends from producing good numbers. Conklin absorbed a whopping 87 targets last season, five more targets than Osborn received.

Irv Smith is a far better pass-catcher than Conklin is, so it’s fair to expect him to command an even bigger share of the targets. Conklin also only played 80% of the snaps at tight end, a number Smith should surpass with ease given the lack of depth at the position. Overall, securing targets won’t be a problem in any way for Smith, despite how crowded this offense looks.

The Minnesota schedule is incredibly favorable to opposing pass-catchers. The Vikings play in the NFC North, a division that has a legitimate argument for being the worst in the NFL. That means two matchups with the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions each, games that should result in big statistical outputs for Smith.

Minnesota also plays the New York Giants, the New York Jets, and the Arizona Cardinals. All three of those teams have struggled defensively for years, and likely won’t improve much, if at all, in 2022. Minnesota ranked just outside of the top-ten most pass-heavy offenses in 2021, and that’s another factor that probably won’t change. All of those factors should amount to the Vikings throwing the ball a ton against bad pass defenses, an environment that Smith should excel in.