EAGAN, Minn. — As Verizon Vikings Training Camp continues and the 2020 season nears, plenty of players will play key roles for the Vikings.
But some players will be in the spotlight more than others, whether it is because of roster turnover or their own progression in recent years.
This is a 10-part series about X-factors on the roster, consisting of players who could be primed for more playing time, and a chance to help the Vikings more than in years past.
Rookies are excluded, as are veterans who have already cemented themselves as vital players on the Vikings.
Up next? Vikings tight end Irv Smith, Jr. Here's why he could be an X-factor in 2020:
— Can continue momentum he built late in his rookie season
— Heavy personnel benefits the run game, which sets up play-action and clears linebackers
— Kubiak's system is one of the best for versatile tight ends
Stat line: 36 receptions (on 47 targets) for 311 yards (8.6 yards per reception) and two touchdowns in 16 games (seven starts)
A second-round selection in 2019, Smith set a Vikings franchise record for rookie tight ends with 36 receptions, and his catch percentage of 76.6 percent was among the top qualifying receivers and tight ends in the NFL.
View the top photos of Vikings TE Irv Smith Jr. from the 2019 season.
Smith played 50 percent or more of offensive snaps in 12 games, and from Week 10 at Dallas through Week 14, he was in for at least 71 percent of offensive snaps. The increase of playing time down the stretch, however, was accompanied by a relative decrease in targets and yards per reception.
Without trying to assign causation or determine correlation, it is worth noting that the Vikings were 6-2 in the regular season and playoffs when Smith had at least three receptions.
The New Orleans native was not targeted in his hometown during the Wild Card round against the Saints, but he did total 39 yards on three receptions at San Francisco.
Best Splash Play So Far
Smith's first touchdown catch of his career will forever be memorable for him and magical in Vikings lore because it sparked a comeback from a 20-point deficit against the Broncos. Prior to that surge, teams trailing 20-0 at halftime had lost the previous 99 games over the course of five seasons.
Kirk Cousins found Smith on a post route for a 10-yard touchdown that sparked Minnesota's 27-23 comeback victory over Denver in Week 11.
Smith took advantage of a clever pre-snap formation that incorporated Dalvin Cook lining up outside and then motioning into a stack formation behind Smith.
Two Broncos defenders bit on an underneath route by Cook, leaving Smith with a footrace (and head start) to the middle of the end zone against cornerback Davontae Harris, who had lined up outside of the numbers.
Smith's inside leverage allowed Cousins to throw one of his easier touchdowns of 2019, but Smith helped with his ability to play from multiple spots.
View photos of Vikings players from Verizon Vikings Training Camp practice at TCO Performance Center.
The Vikings hit multiple home runs with deep passes from Cousins to Stefon Diggs last season, with the duo combining for an NFL-best 624 yards on passes that traveled 20 or more air yards and Diggs tying for the league lead with eight touchdown catches of 40-plus yards.
Diggs caught 15 of the 25 passes thrown by Cousins that traveled 20-plus air yards. Adam Thielen ranked second on the team with five, and Smith was next with three such receptions.
Cousins' passer rating when targeting Diggs was 107.1, which was actually lower than the 107.7 when targeting Smith, a sign that there's passing efficiency to be had by hitting the football equivalent of doubles instead of going full Bomba Squad.
The highest passer rating by Cousins in 2019 occurred when targeting Kyle Rudolph (138.1), followed by Thielen (130.0).
Rudolph recently recalled Kubiak describing Smith last year as "swimming" in the offense but said it was actually "a good thing."
"You should be swimming [at that point as a rookie], because they're expecting a lot out of you and throwing a lot on your plate," said Rudolph, the longest-tenured Viking. "Now, you just see a much higher comfort level mentally, being that he's gone through it all before, he knows what to expect, he knows the offense."
Smith said Kubiak told him from the "get-go" that a lot was going to be put on his plate. Lessons on the Y tight end, F tight end and fullback positions followed, building on what Smith learned at Alabama.
"That's what they drafted me for, that's why they brought me here, to come in and [make] an impact," Smith said. "I just feel like each day I would try to focus on something little, a small detail, and just come and take each day with a new approach."
Kubiak said this summer that there's a "big, big upside" to Smith for multiple reasons.
"I love Irv as a kid and a competitor. He really enjoys coming to work every day," Kubiak said. "And he's benefited from sitting right there next to Rudy every day and watching a seasoned pro go about it. I think there's a lot more there, and Irv's going to give it to us, and I've got to make sure I get him in position to do that."
More recently, Kubiak explained the usual differentiation between Y and F tight ends.
"Usually you play one that's more physical at the Y and a little bit more of a route runner at the F, but with our group they're interchangeable, and that's really good with Rudy, [Tyler Conklin] and Irv and Brandon [Dillon] coming on, and Nakia [Griffin-Stewart] is a good-looking young athlete that can run."
Zone Coverage's Sam Ekstrom last year recapped the impact that tight ends had for Houston during Kubiak's time as the Texans head coach, noting they were one of four teams to total more than 8,000 receiving yards by tight ends from 2006-13.
The Vikings appear built to use heavy personnel for run plays or sell play-action, forcing reactions by defenders that will create openings or engineer matchups favorable for the offense.
Zimmer said Smith has "a skill set that we need to be able to utilize with the offense" to get linebackers, safeties "and actually sometimes" cornerbacks in space and allow Cousins to pick the matchup he wants to target.
"We're always trying to look for matchups we can exploit," Zimmer said.
Cousins on Wednesday pointed out the role that tight ends and fullback C.J. Ham played in the passing game last season while Thielen was out with an injury.
"[We] asked those positions to do far more from a receiving standpoint," Cousins said. "I'd like to believe that when you put those personnels on the field with heavier people, tight ends, fullbacks, that it puts the defensive coordinator in a bind because he's assuming that it's going to be run, or 'This is going to be a tighter formation.'
"And when you have versatile players like an Irv Smith or a CJ Ham that can line up in a lot of different places and do a lot of different things you'd like to think it puts defenses in a tough spot and they can't quite make their call just off of personnel alone," Cousins added. "I do think personnel is one of those things that's the game within the game and when you have versatile players and you can stay very multiple with what you do within a personnel it can make for a great advantage."
With the departure of Diggs, the Vikings could turn to tight ends for part of the production.
"It's no secret that we lost a dynamic playmaker on offense in the pass game with the departure of Stefon," Rudolph said. "So you couple that with the talent that we have in the tight ends room and our history of putting not just two, but three tight ends on the field at the same time, I think that there's a great opportunity for us as a tight ends group to have an impact on this offense in the pass game."
Smith concurred, saying, "I have a lot of confidence in our tight end group."
"Rudy does an amazing job of leading us, taking on that role as a seasoned vet," Smith said. "Me and Conk, we just try to follow Rudy and gain wisdom from him. And we're all different, so it's cool picking up pieces off each other and jelling in that sense."