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Irv Smith Jr. has thumb surgery, Vikings hopeful for Week 1 return

Now the Vikings will see players like Johnny Mundt, Ben Ellefson, and Zach Davidson in an elevated role.

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Irv Smith
Minnesota Vikings
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EAGAN, Minn. -- The redemption tour for Irv Smith Jr. has hit a bump in the road.

After missing all of last season with a knee injury, the 23-year-old tight end entered Minnesota Vikings training camp last week feeling 100% healthy. He spoke with a sense of excitement, calling this season a new beginning, and more or less promising to get his promising career back on track. He even got a butterfly tattoo on his neck to hammer home the metaphor.

“I’m excited for the future and what the future holds for myself,” Smith said last week. “The butterfly (is) kind of like a rebirth.”

Now he’s back on the shelf for the foreseeable future. After leaving practice early on Monday afternoon, Smith had thumb surgery on Tuesday morning. There’s hope internally that he will be back for the Week 1 game against the Green Bay Packers.

“Obviously, with that being the decision, we really had to focus on that opener,” coach Kevin O’Connell said. “We still feel very strongly about our process to get him back, and hopefully have him, barring any setbacks, available for that opener.”

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Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith during the team’s first day of training camp Wednesday, July 27, 2022, at TCO Performance Center in Eagan, Minnesota.
John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

As disappointing as the injury for the Vikings, it gives them a chance to see players like Johnny Mundt, Ben Ellefson, and Zach Davidson in an elevated role for the remainder of training camp. Though none of them are nearly as dynamic as Smith with the ball in their hands, they offer their own particular set of skills that can impact winning.

“We’ve got a big group of guys in there that are kind of vying for roles,” offensive coordinator Wes Phillips said. “It will be good for them to get some more reps and see kind of how that plays out.”

The most experienced player of the bunch is Mundt, a 27-year-old tight end, who spent his entire career with the Los Angeles Rams before signing with the Vikings this offseason. Yes, that means both O’Connell and Phillips have watched Mundt extensively in the past.

“He’s physical in the run game,” Phillips said. “The defensive players (with the Rams) started calling him ‘Strong Hands Mundt’ because he would throw those hands. It wasn’t a pass game comment.”

That said, Phillips stressed that Mundt has some untapped potential as a pass catcher. He referenced a play from early in training camp where Mundt climbed the ladder to make a catch.

“He’s just a reliable guy that’s kind of done each phase, whether it’s the pass protection, the run game, or the pass game. We just know what we’re getting from Johnny. He’s always been a really solid player, and I’m excited about him in a different role.”

While the injury to Smith is a body blow for the Vikings, the fact that Mundt, Ellefson, and Davidson are going to get a lot of reps could be a blessing in disguise down the road. They wouldn’t get that type of experience otherwise.

“You know, we’ll keep it rolling, then when Irv comes back, he’ll come and do what he does,” receiver K.J. Osborn said. “He looked amazing out there. I know he won’t miss a lot of time. I’m excited to have him back.”

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How quickly will Smith be worked back into the offense when he’s ready to return?

“We’ll have to see where he’s at when he gets back,” Phillips said. “He may not be able to catch balls for a little while, whatever that timetable is, but from a lower half perspective, he’s going to be able to get a lot of good work in. He should be in shape and should be ready to go. I know he’s hungry.”

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