Expectations were high for Vikings fourth-year tight end Irv Smith Jr. at the beginning of the summer. Now that Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Conklin are elsewhere, the Alabama alumnus was expected to be the undisputed first option at tight end in 2022. Fans and coaches alike still have high hopes for Smith; they’ll just have to be a little more patient to have them realized.
Within one week of training camp opening, Smith hurt his right thumb and immediately had surgery to repair it. It was a minor surgery, so there is reasonable belief he will be ready to go for the season opener against Green Bay on September 11, per head coach Kevin O’Connell.
Smith has had to endure a rollercoaster over the last twelve months. After his third season was derailed by a season-ending meniscus tear, he was given the challenge of learning a new offensive scheme after not playing competitive football for almost two years. Now, his ability to learn that new scheme will be challenged by his inability to practice with the injury. He will need to be a sponge while observing practice, in the meeting room, and watching film to absorb the new offense.
If He Can Play Week 1
If O’Connell’s assessment is accurate, and Smith is indeed able to play Week 1, his performance against Green Bay will be telling of where he is at entering a pivotal contract year.
It’s often said that players like taking hits before Week 1 to get prepared for the physicality of an NFL game. Since Smith will likely not have that luxury, there will be an extra onus on him to get his mind and body right off the field before a critical season opener against the reigning division champs.
His statistical output in Week 1 won’t be entirely telling given his injury situation, but he will need to show early on in the upcoming campaign that he is ready to step in as a bonafide TE1. Although he’s a player with loads of promise, he’s an unproven commodity at this point: Smith only has 66 catches over 29 career games for 676 yards. For his future contract prospects and the Vikings’ confidence in him, he must put up at least similar numbers to what Conklin or the Rams Tyler Higbee did in 2021 .
If He Can’t Play Week 1
A world where Smith doesn’t play in the opener seems less likely, but it would be concerning on a whole other level. O’Connell brings a Rams-style conservative approach to player injuries; if O’Connell suggests that Smith will be ready by September 11, he will likely be. If, for some reason, he has a setback and cannot suit up, it will be another chink in the armor of a player who has already missed 20 games in his young NFL career.
As injuries continue to pile up for young Irv, chances of a sustained, successful NFL career will dwindle. Especially considering he is entering a contract year, Smith can’t afford to be nagged by injuries in 2022, even one as seemingly insignificant as a minor thumb injury.
His team can’t afford it either. After Smith, the Vikings have zero proven TE talent, a position that has been significant for O’Connell’s offenses in years past .
September 11 will be sneaky revealing for the type of player Irv Smith Jr. is and will be for the rest of his career. Without the ability to practice, much will come down to Smith’s willingness to receive O’Connell and Co.’s teaching over the next four weeks.
The Vikings open their preseason slate on Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas against the Raiders.
Will is a husband, father of two, and a lifelong Minnesotan. He earned an undergraduate degree in Economics (just like Kwesi Adofo-Mensah). He became a Vikings fan in 2009 when Brett Favre stole his heart. Will’s favorite pastimes are water skiing, Minnesota sports, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Follow him on Twitter (@willbadlose) and find his other sports content at Twins Daily and his very own Bad Loser Blog.