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Breakout season by Irv Smith Jr. a key to elevating Vikings’ offense – Minnesota Vikings Blog



EAGAN, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings began preparing for life after tight end Kyle Rudolph three years ago when they drafted Irv Smith Jr. 50th overall.

They found a “perfect fit” in Smith as college scouting director Jamaal Stephenson gushed about all the ways they could use the tight end to create mismatches by placing him out wide, in-line or in the backfield.

Smith’s potential made the Vikings believe they could be more explosive on offense. Now, that hypothetical has a chance to become reality.

Smith, 22, is the top tight end on the roster after the Vikings parted with Rudolph in March after 10 seasons. Knowing what was on the horizon, Smith sought out different methods that would benefit his increased workload.

Smith sat down with his long-time trainer at the start of the offseason to brainstorm new methods for improvement and areas of focus. He restructured his diet with the help of his cousin, a registered dietician who recently graduated from Tulane, to prevent feeling heavy or sluggish on the field. And he came back in “phenomenal shape” this spring, according to offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak.

The Vikings got a glimpse into what the future at tight end could look like when Rudolph, 31, missed the final four games of the 2020 season with a foot injury. In that span, Smith turned 20 targets into 183 receiving yards and three touchdowns.

That’s a far cry from earlier in the season when Smith was a non-factor against Indianapolis, Tennessee and Houston. He turned things around in consecutive games against Seattle (four catches, 64 yards) and Atlanta (four catches, 55 yards, TD), but his most consistent production didn’t come until he supplanted Rudolph as TE1.

Smith has the opportunity for more playing time, but coach Mike Zimmer doesn’t expect his role to be much different.

“I think it’s a bigger role for [fellow tight end] Tyler Conklin,” Zimmer said. “He’s kind of emerged as a guy that’s moving upward and with those two guys, we have a lot of weapons there. Irv always has been able to do what he’s been able to do whether Kyle was here or not. Obviously, Kyle’s a great kid and we miss him, but we’re excited about these two young tight ends that we have.”

Smith was limited to 13 games in 2020 because of a groin injury and had 30 catches for 365 yards and five touchdowns. Expectations for increased production will depend on how the Vikings utilize his skill set.

Rudolph’s role in the passing game decreased during his final season in Minnesota, particularly in the red zone where he went from a team-high 12 targets in 2019 to five in 2020. But the receiving ability of Smith and Conklin (19 catches, 194 yards, TD) may push the Vikings to more two-tight end sets.

“Those two tight ends, they can play wideout too,” Kubiak said. “Those guys are extremely versatile. They’re complete tight ends: run, block and line up in a two-point stance and go at you. So in addition to that, we have our halfbacks we’re going to use in the pass game as well.

“So there’s no criteria. It’s like who’s the third-best wideout? It might be a tight end. It might be the halfback in the game at that point. But we have a lot of options, and we’re working on identifying who those options are come the fall.”

His targets were limited from 2019-20, but Smith made the most of his opportunities by hauling in 73.3% of his catches and posting a 139.7 passer rating when targeted.

The Vikings still barely know what Smith is capable of because he only began to scratch the surface of his potential midway through last season. They viewed him as a middle-of-the-field threat and a heavy contributor in the passing game when they drafted him in 2019. Now he gets the chance to show if he can be that guy.

“This offense is really cool because you can line guys up all over the place,” Smith said. “Now just refining in on the details and learning the whole concept, not just, ‘OK, what do I have on this play or this play?’ Now it’s, ‘If I was out here, what would I do?’ Know what I’m saying? Just trying to break it down in detail so I can just go out there and play fast.”

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Linebacker Vince Williams, 31, informs Pittsburgh Steelers of his retirement after eight seasons



PITTSBURGH — On the eve of the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ first training camp practice, veteran inside linebacker Vince Williams informed the team of his retirement Wednesday.

Williams, 31, played eight seasons with the organization after being selected in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL draft.

Williams was initially released by the team in March because of cap constraints, but he was re-signed in April on a one-year veteran minimum deal.

Some of Williams’ teammates on defense, including T.J. Watt and Joe Haden, posted their reactions on social media later Wednesday.

The former Florida State player emerged as a team leader in Pittsburgh and started 69 of 121 career games, racking up 20.5 sacks, 479 combined tackles and 50 tackles for loss.

His role in 2021 was likely to be reduced with the emergence of Robert Spillane, who stepped up last season when former top-10 pick Devin Bush tore his ACL.

Beyond Spillane and Bush, the Steelers will likely look to rookie Buddy Johnson and safety-turned-inside linebacker Marcus Allen for depth at the position — but with a strong camp, a fully healthy Ulysees Gilbert III could also land a roster spot to round out the group.

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Jerry Jones confident Dallas Cowboys’ vaccination percentage ‘will not limit us in any way’



OXNARD, California — The Dallas Cowboys will open training camp under stricter COVID-19 protocols because they did not reach the 85% vaccination threshold, but owner and general manager Jerry Jones said he does not believe it will impact the players’ preparedness for the regular season.

“My opinion is it will absolutely will not limit us in any way, the issue of vaccination, will [not] limit us in any way as to being competitive as early as when we play Pittsburgh in the first preseason game,” Jones said Wednesday at the opening news conference of training camp. “When people say, ‘Where do you think you stand right now with vaccine relative to your team and as it pertains — this comes to my mind — the competition,’ and I think we’re one of the leaders.”

Jones indicated as few as five players have not made a pledge to get vaccinated at present, and a portion of players are “in the pipeline” toward becoming fully vaccinated, a number that would help the Cowboys reach the mark.

Executive vice president Stephen Jones noted the four weeks between the first shot and full vaccination for not being able to pinpoint an exact date. With 90 players on the roster, 77 need to be vaccinated to reach the current threshold that would ease COVID-19 restrictions at training camp.

“I don’t know that the 85% has been totally negotiated yet,” Stephen Jones said. “I think it’s a work in progress, but, yes, I do think we’ll hit that threshold and more.”

Stephen Jones credited the players for listening to the information the team made available regarding the vaccine.

“They understand that everybody was recommending the vaccine, in and around the country, but they really did their homework,” he said. “They had a lot of great questions. We provided them with lot of education, a lot about the science, and I think they were able to get their hands around it.”

The Cowboys’ coaching staff is fully vaccinated, according to Jerry Jones, but Mike McCarthy said he told his players he needed some convincing early on before getting the shot.

“Frankly, I shared my own personal experience where the facts that I was not particularly 100 percent on board with the vaccination, but through the relationships that we’re fortunate to have in the medical community, you watch, you listen. I think that same approach was given to our players,” McCarthy said. “We just wanted to make sure they had all the facts … Really, the position of where we were numbers-wise in my opinion was more about timing.”

Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin was critical of the Cowboys for not reaching the threshold, questioning their commitment to winning.

“Yeah, and it should upset them,” Irvin said. “It should upset them. Dude, you’re not thinking right. You’re not thinking right. Whatever you got, I don’t give a damn. Nothing else can be more important. You’re not going to get this (winning a Super Bowl) easily. Nothing else could be more important. Jimmy [Johnson] made that abundantly clear (during Irvin’s playing career). Nothing else is more important. And not being one of the [teams] says there’s other things to a great number of people on this team that are more important than winning championships, and that makes me worried.”

Jerry Jones said he understood Irvin’s comments.

“Michael Irvin is the best example that I know of how much will and how much body language and how much of heart and sacrifice mean to winning championships. He is that. So when he talks, I listen. I know that,” Jerry Jones said. “And I think he has a good reputation with the current group of players because of his visibility and his activity with the network where he is as an individual. So he comes with all the credibility in the world. He’s a Hall of Famer and then not only part of — because he’s a talented football player — but a big part of why he got there was that total commitment going above and beyond.

“That’s what he was trying to say. That it isn’t normal things we want from each other as players. We want everything to go above and beyond. And so I thought it was an outstanding message.”

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Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones says he’d ‘do anything’ to make Super Bowl LVI



OXNARD, Calif. — Over the years, Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones has not been afraid to talk about Super Bowl dreams before the start of a season. But as the franchise’s championship drought pushes past 25 years, Jones stayed away from making headlines Wednesday.

Still, making it to Super Bowl LVI is at the top of Jones’ mind.

“I’d do anything known to man to get to a Super Bowl,” Jones said. “That’s a fact.”

Jones became emotional at several points of a nearly hour-long news conference, starting with when he was asked how he intends to get the Cowboys back to a time when they won three Super Bowls in a four-year span in the 1990s.

“I’ve always had to be pragmatic at the end of the day because if not, you’ll end up on the outside looking in. You have to be real,” Jones said. “But on the other hand, I’ve never thought that we couldn’t be better or never thought that we couldn’t make it happen, even when we were not on paper or we weren’t as technically as good or sound. But I’ve never thought that, and I’ve got too many examples of how shorthanded people have knocked them out of the park before. A lot of them. In a lot of different areas.

“I really don’t know that I have any days or have any weeks where I don’t think, ‘There’s a pony in here somewhere.’ You have a lot of days where you ask yourself, ‘What are you doing in the middle of this?’ That has served me well. This isn’t an ‘I, me,’ but I’ve had a lot of people tell me, ‘You’re naive’ or say, ‘He’s naive.’ Well, it’s a beautiful world. … It’s a better world to be naive than to be skeptical and be negative all the time.”

Jones choked up when discussing former coach Jimmy Johnson’s tenure with the Cowboys now that Johnson is headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame next month.

“Well, I just think of those great times, and Jimmy’s a great coach,” Jones said. “Ridiculous. My role here was, my job was to keep it together. It was my job. Should have had deference to something that was working good. Those are the things that come to my mind. We had a great run of it. He’s a great coach, and I’m proud to have him as a friend, and proud to have had the times that we had. We just had a great experience.”

The current Cowboys have missed the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, including a 6-10 finish in 2020 in Mike McCarthy’s first season as coach. Dak Prescott played in just five games because of a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle, but he will be a full participant when practice opens Thursday. A number of other key players also missed significant time due to injury.

With Prescott and offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La’el Collins healthy and the addition of Dan Quinn at defensive coordinator, Jones is optimistic about 2021, if not bombastic.

“I think we got a way to make it work big for this season,” Jones said. “You put those two things together, and I think we got a chance to be a really good team.”

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