The Vikings’ tight end Irv Jr. appeared to be in for a huge 2021 campaign late last summer. Smith was the unquestioned No. 1 TE, even though Kyle Rudolph was not in the picture. Heading into his third year, Smith was the No. 1 TE. After posting a quiet 66/676/7 line in his first two seasons, the Alabama product of 23 years was having a great training camp and seemed poised to fly.
Then, in his third and final preseason match, everything came to a halt. Smith sustained a meniscus injury which would require surgery and put an end to his breakout campaign.
“It was just kind of like a freak kind of accident that happened,”Smith stated Tuesday. “It happened on one of the first drives I was in the game and I kind of felt it. I didn’t really think it was too much and we wanted to play it safe and get an MRI the next day, and I found out I had hurt my knee more severe than what we thought. So I had do what was best for myself and get it repaired, but surgery went well. My recovery has been going really well, and I’m just blessed.”
Smith was forced to watch as the Vikings went 8-9, missing the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Tyler Conklin was a great backup and was awarded a contract with the Jets. However, Rick Spielman’s panic trade to acquire Chris Herndon for Chris Smith was not a good idea. This was a major failure. The Vikings did not have Smith’s size or athleticism in their offense. Smith was 6’2″, 240-pound TE with 4.6 speed, he presents serious matchup problems for opposing defenses.
While he was hurt, Smith stayed as engaged as possible in meetings, helping prepare Conklin and the other tight ends. He tried to make his presence felt as a vocal leader in the locker room, even in just his third season. Still, not being able to be out there on the field with his teammates was difficult.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “That’s kind of life, though. Things get thrown at you that you don’t expect. But it’s about how you bounce back. Your mentality. You can’t be down in those situations. You have to get up and keep going. Your family is there for your support. My team was there to support me. And they believe in me, so that’s all I can ask for.”
Ever since he had surgery, Smith’s focus has been on getting himself prepared to have the breakout season in 2022 that he was supposed to have last year. He doesn’t turn 24 until August, but as a 2019 second-round pick, this is the final year of his rookie contract. A big season could help him earn a nice second contract, whether that’s in Minnesota or elsewhere.
“He had one of his best camps last year.” said Vikings WR and fellow Louisiana native Justin Jefferson. “We knew what he had in mind for us last year and the things he could do for our team. I’ve been talking to him, my locker is right next to him. He’s so anxious to get back on that field, get back with the team. I’m definitely ready to see what he has for us.”
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Smith still has work to do in his recovery, so he won’t be on the field during the Vikings’ offseason program this spring. He’s focused on being locked in every day and building the strength back in his knee, and he plans on being fully ready to go when training camp begins at the end of July. For now, Smith is working closely with the Vikings’ medical and strength staffs, including new executive director of player health and performance Tyler Williams, who was brought over from the Rams. At the same time, he’s diving into learning a completely new offense under head coach Kevin O’Connell.
“I think he’s had a great offseason so far, even before coming back here,” O’Connell said. “I think he’s been right on schedule with everything that Tyler and the doctors, where they want him to be. We’re not going to push him this early on in the offseason until we get the green light from the docs, and we’ll defer to them and Tyler and (head strength coach) Josh (Hingst) — they’re the ones seeing him on a minute-to-minute basis downstairs right now. We’ll make sure that we’ve got a great plan for Irv all the way through this entire nine-week program that just puts him in a great position to have a great training camp. That’s what I’ve challenged him to do, is stressing him above the neck — making sure he’s learning the system so he’s gonna know what to do, where to line up and then when we start getting those full-speed reps for him will be great. And then on to the competitive reps when training camp comes around.”
The Vikings have plenty of talent in skill-positions. Dalvin Cook, Jefferson, Adam Thielen, K.J. They’ve got many weapons with Osborn as wide receiver. Smith’s size, athleticism and ability to block are perfect for that group as both a receiver or a blocker.
“All the different ways we marry the run and the pass, I think Irv has the perfect skillset to play a big role in that,” O’Connell said. “Going back and watching him, I know he was feeling really, really good before the injury last year. He had a really productive camp and it was a shame to not see all of that hard work come to fruition in the season. But that’s what we’re trying to do now, get him right back to where he was, if not better, if not stronger.”
The rehabSmith’s process is ongoing, but he hasn’t experienced any setbacks. Smith has been working hard and should be ready for training camp. Fans can expect to see Smith’s most motivated self when the season begins. Smith wants to prove that he is capable of being a No. 1. Tight end in the NFL O’Connell’s offense should feature him heavily, as he can be an in-line TE or a big slot receiver. He can also line up out wide or in front.
“I’ve worked so hard throughout my life so it’s not like this is something that we built up last camp,”Smith said. “I had a great camp and was looking forward to the season, but that momentum and everything hasn’t slowed down.
“Coming out of this, it’s made me even stronger. So I’m excited, just to be back in the building, get back on the field, do what I love and be with my team, they’ve been super supportive of me, and this whole organization, everybody, has been very supportive. It’s going to be a very fun season.”
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