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Zulgad: Loss of Irv Smith Jr., for season is significant blow to Vikings’ offense


The chemistry between Kirk Cousins and Irv Smith Jr., was evident from the first day the Vikings stepped on the field this summer to begin training camp. Smith had been productive in his first two seasons — 66 receptions for 676 yards and seven touchdowns in 29 games — but this was going to be the year the 2019 second-round pick ascended to the upper-echelon of NFL tight ends.

Smith was finally going to be able to move out of Kyle Rudolph’s shadow and give Cousins the type of tight end who had the hands of a wide receiver. The Cousins-Smith chemistry continued in Friday’s preseason game at Kansas City, as Smith caught passes for 23 and 16 yards on the Vikings’ opening drive.

Turns out that game is likely to be the last one Smith will play in this season. When it was reported Sunday that Smith needed surgery to repair a meniscus injury, the hope was he could have what was called a debridement procedure in which a clean-up would be performed and he would miss weeks instead of months. But the best long-term answer is to do a complete repair and that’s what Smith had done on Wednesday. He will be out four-to-five months, meaning his season is almost certainly over.

This is a huge loss for the Vikings considering how Smith looked and the fact he was expected to play a huge role in first-year coordinator Klint Kubiak’s offense. The Vikings made a trade with the Jets on Tuesday to acquire 2018 fourth-round pick Chris Herndon and on Wednesday they claimed former North Dakota State tight end Ben Ellefson off waivers from Jacksonville. Tyler Conklin, who was sidelined for much of training camp because of a leg injury, also appears ready to go and the team kept Brandon Dillon during its inititial roster cuts to 53 players.

But none of those players are going to replace what Smith was expected to bring. Herndon, who is 6-foot-4, 253 pounds, caught 39 passes for 502 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie and 31 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns last season. He missed almost all of 2019 because of a suspension and injuries. But Herndon is going to have to learn the Vikings’ offense and gain Cousins’ trust. Conklin almost certainly will start the season atop the depth chart. Conklin is a nice player — he finished last season strong, catching 17 passes for 183 yards and a touchdown in the final six games — but he doesn’t bring the same skill set as Smith.

When it comes to ranking the potential weapons that Kubiak and Cousins wanted to utilize in 2021, the opinion here is it would have gone: 1) Dalvin Cook; 2) Justin Jefferson; 3) Irv Smith Jr.;  and 4) Adam Thielen. Yes, Smith was going to be that important.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has talked about using more three wide receiver looks now that Smith is unavailable. That would mean Jefferson, Thielen and K.J. Osborn to start the season. Dede Westbrook, who was brought along slowly during camp as he recovers from an ACL injury suffered last season with Jacksonville, might eventually slide into that No. 3 role.

But putting a guy like Osborn (5-11, 203 pounds) or Westbrook (6-feet, 178 pounds) on the field in place of Smith (6-2, 240 pounds) creates a different matchup for defenses and likely changes what package they employ on the field.

This is where Smith was going to be so dangerous for the Vikings and give the offense a consistent threat it really hadn’t had in recent seasons. Now, before the Vikings play a regular-season game, that threat is gone.