For years, we were supposed to see the Irv Smith Jr. breakout, and unfortunately, it’s not coming in 2022 either. With the season over again for the former 2nd round pick, T.J. Hockenson has been acquired, and now he’s eating his lunch.
Coming up to the trade deadline, it was clear that Minnesota needed an additional weapon in the passing game. Adam Thielen may have lost a step, and while K.J. Osborn is a fine third option, someone had to spread the defense away from superstar Justin Jefferson. Although T.J. Hockenson isn’t an addition, given he was replacing Smith Jr. following another injury, his abilities have proven far above and beyond.
With the Vikings in 2022, Smith Jr. got off to a slow start following an injury during training camp. He wound up playing only seven games and drew no starts. In that action, he caught just 22 passes and recorded a pair of touchdowns. That output comes on the heels of a 2021 season that saw him start just seven games and record only 30 receptions in 13 contests. As a rookie in 2019, Smith Jr. flashed the athleticism that drew fans in, but playing second fiddle to Kyle Rudolph, he tallied only 36 total receptions.
Fast forward to the Hockenson era, and we’re only four games into seeing what the former Detroit Lions standout can do. He’s yet to grasp the playbook completely, and he’ll still have time to settle in, but the returns have been enormous. Hockenson has already caught 26 passes, matching his total in seven games with the Lions. He immediately demanded the attention of opposing defenses, and Jefferson has seen more open space to operate with another threat on the field.
Minnesota didn’t acquire Hockenson through the lens of panic. He was brought in following the injury to Smith Jr., but longevity has him opening the 2023 season as the starting tight end as well. Kirk Cousins has been allowed to mesh with his new pass catcher, and an offseason of working together will only enhance that relationship.
Whether still in Detroit or otherwise, Hockenson was in line for a payday. He’s been very productive despite playing on a losing team that’s often trying to play catchup. With Minnesota, he has expanded opportunity to increase his statistical totals, and he’ll do so on a team with sights set on winning.
For Smith Jr., the breakout never came, and now his opportunity to prove something has come and gone. He’ll enter free agency this offseason as a 25-year-old with little track record at the professional level. There will be questions surrounding his health, and even though his athleticism will force more opportunity, the payday likely will reflect caution about his availability.
It’s an unfortunate result for parties that saw promise in one another. Smith Jr. looked like a great segue at tight end behind the longstanding Rudolph. Last season Tyler Conklin capitalized on the opportunity for a payday, and now Hockenson has rendered Smith Jr.’s future nonexistent with the Vikings.
Ted Schwerzler is a blogger from the Twin Cities that is focused on all things Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings. He’s active on Twitter and writes weekly for Twins Daily. As a former college athlete and avid sports fan, covering our pro teams with a passion has always seemed like such a natural outlet.