Until Sunday the Minnesota Vikings were the healthiest team in the NFL — to the point where their injury report on the Wednesday leading up to Vikings-Cardinals at US Bank Stadium had no names on it. Only Lewis Cine and Ben Ellefson were on injured reserve. But coming out of the victory, which pushed the Vikings’ record to 6-1, two starters went down and could be out for significant time.
Head coach Kevin O’Connell characterized tight end Irv Smith Jr. (ankle) and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson’s (calf) injuries as “week-to-week” situations, though ESPN's Adam Schefter says Smith is expected to miss 8-10 weeks, while NFL Network's Ian Rapoport says Smith is going on injured reserve.
For Smith Jr., this is his third significant portion of time missed since 2020. He missed last season with a knee injury that required surgery and then underwent thumb surgery in training camp. High ankle sprains normally carry a recovery time of around 4-6 weeks.
“Every single snap, I really have felt like Irv is getting better and better and more comfortable coming off the injury from last year,” O’Connell said. “It was unfortunate to see him go down late in the game. We’re hoping for some good news on Irv as he continues to get evaluated with our staff.”
While Smith Jr. hasn’t taken the step forward that the Vikings hoped in his fourth year, he has still added 22 receptions for 168 yards and two touchdowns. His absence leaves the Vikings with just two tight ends on the active roster: Johnny Mundt and Jacob Hollister.
“We’ll have one more week until we can possibly activate Ben [Ellefson], and he’s been really attacking his rehab and seems to be right on schedule…when I look at that group, whether it’s a week-to-week thing, whatever we see that we need to do to continue to evolve as an offense and have that tight end position be a big part of what we do…I expect a lot out of that room when their number is called," O'Connell said.
Mundt has played at least 40% of snaps in five of the Vikings’ seven games and has 12 receptions for 76 yards and one touchdown. On the practice squad is tight end Nick Muse, a seventh-round draft pick who could be called up for this week’s game if the Vikings do not add another player.
Tomlinson could be a huge loss for the defensive line. He currently ranks in the top 15 defensive tackles by Pro Football Focus and has turned into more of a pass rushing force in Ed Donatell’s 3-4 defense than he’s ever been before in his career, ranking 25th among DTs in total pressures.
“[He’s] not always going to get the headlines, the stats, the sacks but he’s been a force for us up front,” O’Connell said. “Every single week, we come in after these games and [defensive line coach] Chris Rumph’s telling our staff that [Tomlinson] had another really great game and showed up in the run and the pass. He’s really activated some dynamic rush moves and speed to power and different athletic, winning one-on-one matchup tight moments in games.”
Only Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith have played more snaps on the D-line this year than Tomlinson, which leaves huge shoes to fill if he’s out for multiple weeks. Veteran Jonathan Bullard and 2020 fourth-round pick James Lynch have mostly contributed in run-stuffing roles, combining for one QB pressure in 147 pass rush snaps this year. The Vikings acquired Ross Blacklock from the Texans in a trade prior to the season but he’s yet to carve out a role, seeing the field for only 83 snaps, 67 of which have been on passing downs. He has created seven pressures. Recent acquisition Khyiris Tonga played 217 snaps for the Bears last year and saw 16 versus the Cardinals on Sunday.
Next week as the Vikings travel to Washington their depth will be tested for the first time. Smith Jr. may not have started the season hot but he offers some threat of going downfield based on his prior performances, where as Mundt has been exclusively a blocking tight end during his career.
For the defensive line, they are coming off three straight excellent performances and now take on a team that is trying to find its footing offensively with Taylor Heinicke at quarterback and a duo of struggling running backs. In the following weeks the challenges get much tougher against Buffalo and Dallas’ dynamic offenses.