The Minnesota Vikings offense took a major blow on Sunday when it was reported that Irv Smith Jr. will undergo knee surgery. Smith’s meniscus injury was deflating for a player the Vikings were relying heavily upon this season and leaves them without many options in the passing game.
The injury hurts the Vikings in the present, but it also throws them into the passenger seat of the Delorean. While 88 mph may be a little too fast for Mike Zimmer’s taste, he has no choice as Smith’s absence turns back the clock to 2018.
In case you forgot, there were Super Bowl aspirations before that season. The Vikings had a high-priced quarterback in Kirk Cousins, and the return of Dalvin Cook figured to provide a boost to the ground game. With Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs returning as the NFL’s best receiver duo, the Vikings had all the weapons they needed to go where they hadn’t gone in four decades.
But things started to unravel early. Cook pulled a hamstring and missed the majority of the first half of the season. When teams started to double team Thielen and Diggs, Laquon Treadwell and Aldrick Robinson couldn’t draw attention as secondary threats. The offense stalled out, John DeFilippo got fired, and the Vikings missed the playoffs.
Unfortunately, this year’s team could be in the same situation after Smith’s injury. Throughout the offseason, Zimmer praised his “explosive” offense without realizing its weaknesses. One of the biggest flaws was their lack of a third receiving option behind Thielen and Justin Jefferson.
The offseason began with several available targets to fill that void in free agency, but the Vikings passed in favor of a defensive shopping spree. With Sammy Watkins, Keelan Cole, and Josh Reynolds all off the board, they could have been aggressive in getting a receiver in the draft but waited until the fifth round to take Ihmir Smith-Marsette.
Even after assessing their draft class, the Vikings waited until signing Dede Westbrook a week before free agency. Westbrook could wind up being the deep threat the Vikings need, but his recovery from a torn ACL suffered last season has been slow, making it unclear when we’ll see him on the field.
All of this was okay because Smith was there to shoulder the load. He was an elite receiving option at Alabama, but he was being used in the offense in a way that made him a viable third receiver.
The key to Smith’s breakout at Alabama was their tendency to get him in space. Alabama offensive coordinator Michael Locksley found ways to create catch-and-run opportunities and utilized his speed on deep routes to help Smith rank first in yards per route run (2.56) during the 2018 season.
The Vikings showed some of these concepts during their final preseason game against Kansas City. Smith caught a pair of passes on the opening drive and used his 4.63-second 40-yard dash to keep the offense moving.
Smith’s ability to create plays helps everyone on the offense. With Smith stretching the middle of the field, Jefferson and Thielen can work on the outside without being doubled by opposing safeties. If the middle of the field is cleared out, the running game will be more effective.
It also helps to have Smith on the field in late-game situations. If a defense knows that Thielen and Jefferson are going to get the ball, they’re going to do everything they can to stop them unless there’s a third threat. When Smith is on the field, he fits that bill.
There’s also the looming risk of injury to key players on the offense. Thielen and Jefferson have gotten banged up this offseason, leaving the Vikings to rely on K.J. Osborn and Chad Beebe to carry the load. If Smith is doing his job, he can bear some of that burden instead of hoping Osborn and Beebe overachieve.
One of Minnesota’s other options may step up, but history indicates that that’s unlikely to happen. Instead, the Vikings will be hoping for a quick recovery so that Thielen and Jefferson can get open. Nobody wants to relive 2018 again.