The worst-case scenario is reality: Vikings third-year tight end Irv Smith Jr. is expected to miss the entire 2021 season after undergoing surgery to repair his meniscus on Wednesday morning, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. The recovery timetable is four to five months, so it's unlikely Smith plays at all this year.
Smith suffered the injury in the Vikings' preseason finale against the Chiefs, but it wasn't clear during the game that he got hurt. The public didn't find out about it until two days later, when it was reported that Smith was expected to have surgery on his meniscus. That meant one of two procedures: a minor clean-up that would keep him out two to four weeks, or the full repair that would end his season.
It turned out to be the latter, unfortunately.
This is a major, major loss for the Vikings. The 23-year-old Smith was an obvious pick to have a breakout season as he stepped into the No. 1 tight end role previously held by Kyle Rudolph. That was true even before training camp. Then Smith went out on the practice field at TCO Performance Center and consistently looked like one of the Vikings' best players, making highlight-reel catches and getting open consistently.
Not only was the athletic Alabama product the Vikings' best tight end, he was really going to be their No. 3 option in the passing game behind Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Smith has the ability to line up in the slot or even out wide in addition to typical TE alignments.
Everything Smith can do as a receiver and blocker is going to be impossible to replicate, but the Vikings are going to have to try. As they say in sports, it's the next man up.
Tyler Conklin now steps into the TE1 role and will look to build on a strong finish to last season. This also helps explain the Vikings giving up a fourth-round pick in the trade with the Jets for once-promising TE Chris Herndon, who is still just 25 and could potentially revive his career with this change of scenery. He'll be their No. 2 TE, with blocking specialist Brandon Dillon presumably still the No. 3.
The Vikings also might run more three-receiver sets on offense now that Smith is out. If one or two of K.J. Osborn, Dede Westbrook, or Ihmir Smith-Marsette steps up and has a big year, that would help a lot to take the load off of Jefferson, Thielen, Dalvin Cook, and Conklin.
"We were planning on using Irv a little bit more on third down as a slot receiver," Mike Zimmer said on Wednesday. "Probably won’t do that now. Probably go with three wide [receivers]. Some of those things we’ll have to adapt and change."
It sounds like this was the best decision for Smith from a long-term perspective and that he should have no problem returning to the field in 2022 and playing at a high level. That'll be the final year of his rookie contract.
"They repaired the meniscus which is the best thing for him for his longevity," Zimmer said. "If we would’ve took the meniscus out from what I understand — again, I’m not a doctor or a trainer — he would’ve had an arthritic knee and his career would’ve been shortened."
Still, it's hard to overstate how big of a loss this is. Based on his training camp performances and a few snaps against the Chiefs, Smith was going to have a big-time season.
One of the worries heading into this season for the Vikings was that their injury luck on the offensive side of the ball — which was pristine in 2020 — would regress. With Smith and three depth wide receivers (Chad Beebe, Bisi Johnson, Blake Proehl) out for the year, first-round left tackle Christian Darrisaw struggling to get on the field, and both Jefferson and Thielen suffering minor injury scares, that has been the case in a big way so far.
We can only hope the Vikings have already gone through the worst of it, and that Smith has a full and speedy recovery.
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