When Kyle Rudolph signed with the New York Giants this off-season, it appeared that the stage was finally set for Irv Smith Jr. to take over as the Minnesota Vikings’ full-time tight end. Even before Rudolph left, the transition seemed inevitable. Smith caught all five of his touchdown receptions in the final six games he played last year and started the final three games of the season.
Coaches, beat reporters, and fans alike expected Smith to have his breakout season throughout training camp. The third-year tight end out of Alabama showcased his ability on Friday night in front of a national TV audience. He caught two passes for 39 yards in limited action against the Kansas City Chiefs to end the preseason. Smith appeared to be in good spirits as he was interviewed on the sideline by Vikings radio analyst Ben Leber during the fourth quarter.
So when word came on Monday that the team feared Smith had a tear in his meniscus, fans were concerned and confused. However, there was some optimism as no one could pinpoint when he got injured during the final preseason game.
Ironically, it was a trade for New York Jets tight end Chris Herndon — a fourth-year player who flashed ability but lacked consistency — that put fans on alert that Smith’s injury could be serious. The Vikings sent a 2022 fourth-round pick in exchange for Herndon and a 2022 sixth-round pick. Still, fans held out hope that it was a less severe injury that wouldn’t keep him out for more than a month.
Optimism died when Adam Schefter reported that Smith underwent surgery on Wednesday morning, almost certainly ending his promising season. The development felt eerily similar to the Teddy Bridgewater injury five years earlier. The team seemingly escaped the preseason unscathed, only to see a promising third-year player’s season end before it ever got started due to an odd, untimely knee injury.
It isn’t as if the Vikings were only counting on Smith to produce at tight end, though. Tyler Conklin, a fifth-round selection in 2018, will now be counted on to play a bigger role. He finally found a niche in Minnesota’s passing game late last year, catching 19 passes for 194 yards and a touchdown in the season’s final eight games. At 6’3”, 253 lbs., Conklin has a bigger frame than Smith, who stands 6’2”, 243 lbs. Herndon, 6’4″, 253 lbs., caught 71 passes for 796 yards and seven touchdowns in 33 games with the Jets. He and Conklin could be a solid duo at the position.
Still, Smith Jr.’s injury hurts. It gives grizzled Vikings fans everywhere pause when the team, or a particular player, receives off-season praise. Even Mike Zimmer joked about his luck (or lack thereof) in his eight seasons as Minnesota’s head coach.
Over five years ago, Zimmer spoke about overcoming Bridgewater’s injury. He preached not to allow setbacks and excuses to get in the way of the team’s ultimate goals. “That’s our job: Find a way,” Zimmer said. “No one is going to feel sorry for us, no one is going to cry.”
This season was going to be pivotal for the Vikings whether they had Irv Smith Jr. in the lineup or not. While the task appears tougher, the team is still all-in on the season. Minnesota now turns to Conklin and Herndon to fill Smith’s role. Although they may not possess Smith’s playmaking ability, they now must step up and, as Zimmer said, find a way.