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Irv Smith Jr. Takes Some Senior NFL Advice And Bengals Offense Is The Beneficiary

Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith Jr. (84) scores on a 2-yard touchdown reception during the first half of an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith Jr. (84) scores on a 2-yard touchdown reception during the first half of an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The first time new Bengals left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. lines up next to new Bengals tight end Irv Smith Jr. against, say, Cleveland sack ace Myles Garrett, it won't be all that new.

Irv Smith Sr., who advised his son to sign with the Bengals this week, lived it nearly 25 years ago. It was his last year in the NFL and he was with the 1999 expansion Browns playing tight end and his right tackle was Orlando "Zeus" Brown Sr.

"The fathers played next to each other and the sons are going to be playing next to each other. Isn't that amazing?" Smith asks. "Zeus was a great guy. Humble. He was my boy. It hurt my heart when he passed. I wish he could be enjoying his son playing like I am my son. But it is so nice to see him honor his dad with his career. That's going to be great for Irv to play with a dude like that."

But Smith Sr. didn't exactly have the offensive line in mind when he urged his son to sign with the Bengals instead of the Dolphins. The father, who played 95 games and caught 183 balls during seven seasons in a 1990s that ignored the tight end, started with Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and went from there.

"You need to sign with Cincy. That's where you need to be. I feel it in my bones," is how Senior recounts his pitch. "I didn't even look at the roster. I just said that team fits you perfectly. Two amazing receivers, that (running) back they've got … that quarterback … the tight end they had is gone. You're the guy they need for that situation."

Another guy who played 95 games in the league at tight end, Bengals tight ends coach James Casey, agrees.

"He's a good route runner. He's got speed. He's tough. He runs hard after the catch," says Casey, reciting his scouting report from the 2019 draft. "He's got good technique as a blocker. He's not the biggest person, but he's got good effort and isn't shy about doing his job. He fits what we do and he's just a great guy. Good person. Dad played. He knows what it's all about and he does it the right way."

Casey and the dad have even more in common than those 95 games. Both were drafted by Major League Baseball, Casey as a fireball pitcher and Smith as a fleet outfielder nabbed by the Astros in the 50th round, 1,379 picks after Derek Jeter in 1992. Smith went to Notre Dame because of baseball coach Pat Murphy, but he stopped playing after his junior year and everyone knew he was going in the first round in the 1993 NFL Draft. And he did. No. 20 to the Saints.

Plus, all three are about the same smallish size for tight end no matter the era. Casey played his 95 games at 6-3, 235 pounds. Senior went 6-3, 249 pounds and his son is 6-2, 240.

"I majored in speed. I was known for putting them down. But they didn't use me that way," Senior says, "It was still three backs, two receivers, run the ball, play-action. Irv can run, too. He's patterned his game after mine, but he's come along at the right time. They let athletes be athletes.

"The thing about Irv is he can block like a tight end and run like a receiver. From the time he was five years old he wanted to be a wide receiver. I said, 'Irv, look at me. I'm a big receiver. You're going to be too big to be a receiver.'"

That's how the conversations would go until about the time the son was a high school junior in New Orleans. Irv, you don't want to be the slowest wide receiver. You want to be the fastest tight end.

"When he was a sophomore, they made him a receiver slash tight end," Senior says. "I said, 'Good, you're getting there.' Then he embraced it. He's a quick tight end, but he feels like a receiver playing tight end. He puts his heart out there and when they need a guy to stretch the middle and complement those receivers, he can do it."

The father may have been the graceful outfielder (his Notre Dame teammate is Brewers manager Craig Counsell), but Casey says the son's athleticism is going to sneak up on people. Former first-rounder Hayden Hurst, who left the Bengals in free agency after his 52-catch season, has elite athleticism but isn't as fast as Smith.

"You'll see a little more quickness on underneath routes," Casey says. "And route-running change of direction. Hayden is a little bit bigger and he was great, too, (Smith) is a little quicker. I think he's going to surprise some people how he runs his routes once Burrow gets comfortable with him. He's going to surprise people with how athletic he is."

Casey also thinks Smith is going to surprise with his blocking.

"What would always drive me crazy as a player is I was not a big guy, either, and it was seen as a negative," Casey says. "But I felt like I could do some of the things those 6-5 guys could do and that's what I bring to the process with Irv. Just because you're not 6-5 doesn't mean you can't do all this stuff.

"Strong hands and play with good technique. When he's going against the longer defensive ends, he's not a super lanky guy like some of these tight ends, but he's got quickness, change-of-direction and he can cut guys off on the block and being low to the ground helps. Some of what's seen as disadvantages are really advantages."

Irv Smith Jr. had the advantage of having a dad who lived the dream and cared right from the get-go. After flying back from the 49ers' Aug. 8, 1998 preseason game, Smith Sr., jumped on a 6 a.m. flight to New Orleans, landed at 2, grabbed a cab, showed up at the hospital half-an-hour later and at 2:45 p.m. Irvin Martin Smith Jr. was born.

"I gave him that name for a reason," he says. "I wanted him to be attached to me for life."

The day the son turned 21, he made his NFL debut in the Vikings preseason opener against the team Saints team that drafted his dad.

"He's only 24," Senior says. "He hasn't come close to reaching his potential yet … The last two years he's been hurt a lot. Everyone knows the kid has talent.

"He's going to have a great opportunity with the Cincinnati Bengals. He went there for one reason. To have a chance to win the Super Bowl. He can be the piece that puts them over the top."

Smith Sr. runs Irv Smith Realty in Phoenix, Ariz., but he's roamed acreage from New Orleans to the University of Alabama to Minnesota to watch his son and the man who caught his last NFL touchdown against the Bengals in the last game at the riverfront's Cinergy Field says he can't wait to return to watch him play at Paycor Stadium.

"Joe Burrow is a winner," says Irv Smith Sr., the tight end turned realtor who knows it's all about location, location, location.

"In my opinion, a guy like (Junior) can enhance those receivers, that running back and, of course, the quarterback. My opinion is it's a no-brainer. It was his choice. But if you ask me what I would do, I'd call my agent and get this deal done."


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