EAGAN, Minn. — The news that Irv Smith, Jr., could potentially miss several months is a crushing blow, both for Smith and the Vikings offense.
The Vikings tight end underwent surgery Wednesday morning for a meniscus injury, and the timetable for his recovery appears to be multiple months. Vikings Head Team Physician Dr. Chris Larson performed the surgery, which ended up being a longer-term-rehab procedure.
What makes the news even tougher to stomach is that Smith was primed for a breakout year in his third season and first as Minnesota's top tight end.
The 23-year-old was a dominant force in training camp and was expected to be a vital piece in both the passing and running games in 2021. Through two seasons, Smith recorded 66 catches for 676 yards and seven scores in 29 games.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer and quarterback Kirk Cousins reacted to the disappointing news on Wednesday.
"We knew it was probably going to be a little while anyway," Zimmer said. "Those are all part of things you have to plan for."
Cousins added: "He's just a great football player, and there's no reason to think he wasn't going to have a great year."
Both Zimmer and Cousins also expressed optimism that Smith's long-term future is a bright one.
"Irv is a good player. They repaired the meniscus, which is the best thing for him for his longevity," Zimmer said. "If we would've took the meniscus out from what I understand — again, I'm not a doctor or a trainer — he would've had an arthritic knee and his career would've been shortened. But yeah, he was doing a lot of nice things for us that could've helped us a lot offensively."
Cousins said: "He's so young, he's got a lot of good football ahead of him, so this is just going to be a bump in the road in the long scheme of things."
The Vikings offense will have to adjust, too, which could mean more three-wide receiver sets instead of multiple-tight end formations.
Minnesota will now turn to tight end Tyler Conklin, who is entering his fourth season with the team. The Vikings have a trade agreement to acquire Chris Herndon from the Jets, pending a physical exam. Tight end Brandon Dillon is also currently on the 53-man roster, and Minnesota claimed Ben Ellefson off waivers Wednesday.
"I feel really good about our options," Cousins said. "There are certainly a number of ways you can pivot, like bringing in Chris.
"It kind of remains to be seen because we've got some work to do and bring some people in here, and it could change week to week, too, based on what we feel is our best option against that defense and that look," Cousins added. "So it's probably a pretty fluid situation."
Zimmer said of Herndon: "He was a guy that was kind of pretty good in most areas. Decent blocker. Pretty good hands. Runs decent. Of all the tight ends we looked at, he was the one that we thought was the best option."
The Vikings have practices Wednesday and Thursday and will turn their attention to preparing for the Bengals next week. Minnesota opens in Cincinnati on Sept. 12.
Smith's presence, however, will certainly be missed — both on the field and in the locker room.
"Change is such a big part of this business, and you have to be able to adapt. There will always be curveballs thrown at us, and you still have to find a way to deliver and produce," Cousins said. "So you're always looking to find that way. If anything, you kind of expect change to happen so you're not caught off guard when it does."
Zimmer said: "[Players] respect [Smith] and a lot and know he's a good player, and you hate to see him get hurt. They know he could have helped us a lot, but these guys have seen enough injuries in their lives and careers that they have to say, 'Hey, we have to take the next step and move on.' [The NFL] isn't going to wait for anybody."