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Tyler Conklin Explains Progress, Mentality for Filling in for Irv Smith, Jr.

EAGAN, Minn. — The bad news — Irv Smith, Jr., needs surgery to repair his meniscus — broke Sunday and was addressed by Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer.

The good news for Vikings tight ends is that Tyler Conklin is feeling better after being sidelined by a hamstring injury.

Conklin spoke with Twin Cities media members Monday afternoon after a practice that had limited viewing periods and his hamstring is "feeling really good."

Hamstrings can be pesky with flare-ups hindering progress, but Conklin said it was "very minor in the first place," so the approach has been to ease his way back into activities. He looked fluid last week when running on a side field during an open practice.

"Sometimes you think you feel good and then you want to go out there and test it. So you just don't test," Conklin said. "You take the time that you have to make it feel better, and we'll be all good Week 1."

That's welcome news for a Vikings squad that has been excited about the potential impact that Conklin and Smith could have in 2021 because of their completeness. Minnesota will kick off the 61st season in franchise history at Cincinnati on Sept. 12.

Conklin closed the 2020 season with 15 catches for 168 yards and his first career touchdown in the final four games after Kyle Rudolph suffered an injury. The 2018 fifth-round pick said every point of his career has led to where he's at as his fourth NFL season approaches.

"I think everything in my career has kind of happened for a reason. Sometimes you get thrown out there and you're not prepared, but I think in my situation I got to learn from a good vet in Kyle Rudolph," Conklin said. "I got to be eased into and basically play a starting role in the last four to six games last year and got to go and have a strong offseason and feel really prepared for Week 1, so I don't think it could have worked out any better."

Minnesota was envisioning some two tight end sets like last season when the Vikings used 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends and two receivers) on 224 of their 1,023 offensive plays (according to Next Gen Stats).

Zimmer said the Vikings might have to use three wide receivers more frequently in 2021, but that doesn't mean they still can't use that grouping while Smith, whose recovery timeline won't be known, is out. It just means someone else needs to join Conklin.

"It's kind of next-man-up mentality and obviously it's tough for, I mean, Irv's a really good friend of mine, so I feel for him because I know … how ready both of us were for this year," Conklin said. "I know he's been working his butt off, and he'll handle his situation to the best of his ability and come back even better. I'm extremely ready for this opportunity, and I'm just excited to get going.

"Irv always has good spirits. He has a good mindset just with everyday life and football," Conklin added later. "We don't know exactly what it is, but just knowing him and how he handles things, that's why I know he's gonna handle this really well and come out better because of it."

After Smith and Conklin, the Vikings tight ends group includes Brandon Dillon, who spent most of the past two seasons on the practice squad, fifth-round pick Zach Davidson and undrafted rookie Shane Zylstra, who converted from receiver this offseason.

"I have a lot of faith in those guys," Conklin said. "We handle our business really well in that room. We know what we're supposed to do, and I think everybody's ready to step up to the challenge."

Minnesota and all teams must reduce their rosters to 53 by 3 p.m. (CT) Tuesday.