The Cincinnati Bengals moved on from C.J. Uzomah after the 2021 season, replacing him with Hayden Hurst after the former signed with the Jets in free agency.
Then, a year later, they lost Hurst to the Carolina Panthers in free agency. Most believed the team would take a tight end early in the draft, but even with Michael Mayer available when the Bengals went on the clock, they passed on him, opting for defensive end Myles Murphy instead.
It’s clear the team is very comfortable with the free agent tight end they signed before the draft, and he’ll be joining a murderer’s row of talented skill position players in Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and Joe Mixon.
Irv Smith Jr.
- Height: 6-2
- Weight: 240 lbs
- Age: 24 (25 in August)
- College: Alabama
- Hometown: New Orleans, LA
- Experience: 4 years
The Bengals signed Smith Jr. to a one-year $1.75 million contract with $400,000 guaranteed. With a huge extension coming for quarterback Joe Burrow and Higgins, DJ Reader, Logan Wilson, Chidobe Awuzie, and others entering the last years of their deals, the team couldn’t afford to splurge on the position.
He is the highest-paid tight end on the roster, accounting for 0.77% of the team’s cap space, per Spotrac. The next highest-paid tight end is Devin Asiasi, who is owed $1.14 million and is also in the last year of his deal.
Smith was selected in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft with the 50th overall selection out of Alabama by the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings already had starting tight end Kyle Rudolph on the roster, but knowing he’d be leaving in free agency in the next couple of seasons, they likely selected Smith Jr. to be his replacement. Unfortunately, for both the Vikings and Smith Jr., that didn’t work out.
In his rookie season, Smith Jr. saw action in all 16 games, starting in six of them. He caught 36 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns. He also earned a 65.4 run-blocking grade from PFF for the season.
The following year, Smith Jr. still backed up Rudolph, catching 30 passes for 365 yards and five touchdowns, a career-high, with a PFF run-blocking score of 57.2. He did miss three games due to a torn meniscus. That injury was surgically repaired in the offseason, which landed the tight end on the Vikings' IR for the entirety of the 2021 season.
In 2022, Smith, finally out of Rudolph’s shadow, returned to the field but found himself behind another talented tight end, T.J. Hockenson, who was acquired via trade with the Detroit Lions. Smith finished up his career in Minnesota with 36 receptions for 311 yards and two touchdowns and a run-blocking grade of 56.2, per PFF.
Outlook for the 2023 season
To say that Smith Jr.’s career has been a disappointment based on his draft position would be a fair statement. However, much of that has to do with the fact that Smith Jr. has been behind two Pro Bowl tight ends in his career in Minnesota, combined with his injury history.
The Bengals and Burrow have been able to help their last two tight ends, Uzomah and Hurst, sign multi-year deals with their respective teams after their time in the Bengals offense. Smith Jr. is looking to do the same, and if he can stay healthy, there’s no reason he can’t pull it off.
Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said in an interview with Dave Lapham he’s aware the team has been “a tight end improvement factory” over the last few years, but Smith Jr. might be the best of the bunch so far.
“Irv is probably the most pure pass-catching tight end that we’ve had,” Callahan said. “I thought Hayden [Hurst] was a little bit bigger, a little bit longer than Irv, but I think Irv is a really detailed route runner. He’s got good speed. He’s a very natural catchers. He’s got good awareness, extremely coachable. His speed, athleticism, and ability to catch and then run after the catch as well, I think he’ll be a really different element than then we’ve had.”
With a much improved offensive line after the addition of Orlando Brown Jr. and having all three top-tier wide receivers on the roster for what will likely be the last time, the addition of Smith Jr. could be what puts the team over the hump.
If Smith Jr. can stay healthy for the entire season, he could be next in line to come out of the Bengals tight end factory and sign a multi-year deal.