Irv Smith’s knee injury leaves Vikings too thin at tight end

Depth at tight end was a Vikings strength in recent years, but that has disappeared in a hurry. In March, the Vikings released Kyle Rudolph in a salary-related move. Then over the weekend they learned that Irv Smith Jr., set to take over for Rudolph as the starter, will miss at least the start of […]

Irv Smith’s knee injury leaves Vikings too thin at tight end

Depth at tight end was a Vikings strength in recent years, but that has disappeared in a hurry.

In March, the Vikings released Kyle Rudolph in a salary-related move. Then over the weekend they learned that Irv Smith Jr., set to take over for Rudolph as the starter, will miss at least the start of the regular season due to surgery to repair a torn meniscus.

For now, that leaves the Vikings with Tyler Conklin, who has 32 receptions in three NFL seasons, as the starter in front of backups Brandon Dillon, who has one career catch, and raw rookies Zach Davidson and Shane Zylstra. So how does head coach Mike Zimmer feel now about the depth at the position?

“Well, it’s not very good,” Zimmer said Monday.

With that in mind, the Vikings will scour the waiver wire after NFL teams must get down to the regular-season roster limit of 53 players by 3 p.m. Tuesday. They also will look into possible trade options.

Zimmer said Smith, whom many projected to have a breakout season in his third year, will undergo knee surgery later this week performed by Chris Larson, the Vikings’ head team physician. While Smith definitely will miss the Sept. 12 opener at Cincinnati, Zimmer said how long he will be sidelined won’t be known until after the surgery.

“We’ll just see where he’s at,” Zimmer said. “A lot of times you can’t really tell anything until you get in there.”

Zimmer is not sure how Smith’s injury happened. Playing only in the first half, he caught two passes for 39 yards in Friday’s 28-25 loss at Kansas City in the preseason finale, and showed no signs of discomfort.  Smith gave a three-minute interview on the television broadcast during the fourth quarter, sporting a big smile on his face and saying nothing about any injury.

“It happened in the game. … It’s hard to know exactly what happened,” Zimmer said.

For now, Conklin will take over as the starter. He injured a hamstring in practice on Aug. 16 and did not play in any of the Vikings’ three preseason games. But he returned to practice on Monday.

“I feel really good,” Conklin said. “It’s more about easing into it. I’m trying to handle it the right way so I’m good for the whole year.”

Conklin has started just six of the 47 NFL games he has played, and only one start came with him as the only tight end on the field. But with Rudolph missing the final four games in 2020 because of a foot injury, he did catch 15 passes for 168 yards during that stretch.

“It’s kind of next-man-up mentality, and obviously it’s tough for (Smith),” Conklin said. “Irv’s a really good friend of mine, so I feel for him. … I’m extremely ready for this opportunity, and I’m just excited to get going.”

The Vikings are expected to keep Smith on the 53-man roster when it is set Tuesday because if he is put on injured reserve before then he would be out the entire season. After the roster is set, Smith could be placed on injured reserve if the Vikings believe he will be out at least three games, which is the minimum allowed to stay on the list.

Considering Smith’s injury and the status of other injured players, Zimmer said it will be a “puzzle” determining which players to waive on Tuesday.

Dillon and Davidson have been battling for a third tight-end spot behind Smith and Conklin, but now could be in a fight for a backup role. Dillon spent most of the past two seasons on the practice squad, and has gotten into four NFL games. Davidson, a fifth-round draft pick out of Division II Central Missouri, is very athletic but is raw and had a mediocre preseason, dropping several passes.

Zylstra, an undrafted rookie who played wide receiver at Division II Minnesota State Mankato, might be a candidate for the practice squad.

“I have a lot of faith in those guys,” Conklin said of the other healthy tight ends now on the roster.

He might have more faith in them than Zimmer. The head coach already is looking at adjustments the Vikings might make if they are very thin at tight end.

“We may end up being a little more three wide with some of the guys we have,” he said of using an extra wide receiver. “All of this will shake out after the cuts. We can’t jump ahead of anything right now.”