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Vikings’ Irv Smith Jr. looks to bounce back after last season ended with ‘freak’ injury

The Vikings began offseason drills last week, but Smith has not been a full participant

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith Jr. (84) runs with the ball after a catch for a 36-yard gain in an Oct. 18, 2020, game against the Atlanta Falcons at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Nick Wosika / USA Today Sports

EAGAN, Minnesota — During the fourth quarter of the Minnesota Vikings’ final exhibition game last season, tight end Irv Smith Jr. was interviewed on the television broadcast for three minutes. He had a big smile on his face and gave no indication that earlier in that game he had suffered a knee injury.

On Tuesday, Smith said he had tweaked his knee in the first quarter in the 28-25 loss at Kansas City on Aug. 27, 2021 but initially thought it was no big deal. He was taken out of that game shortly thereafter, along with other veteran players, and was eagerly awaiting Minnesota’s regular-season opener 16 days later.

“It was just like on a weakside blocking play,’’ Smith recalled. “And I just felt like my knee kind of buckled a little bit, and I really didn’t think it was nothing too serious. But it was.’’

Indeed it was. Smith said the Vikings, just to be sure, sent him for a magnetic resonance imaging exam the next day, and the injury was deemed “more severe than what we thought.” Smith had suffered a torn meniscus, and surgery was set for Sept. 1. After the procedure, he was ruled out for the season.

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“It was just kind of a freak kind of accident that happened,’’ said Smith, speaking to reporters for the first since the injury. “It’s crazy. That’s kind of life, though. Things get thrown at you that you don’t expect. But it’s how you bounce back. Your mentality. You can’t be down in those situations. You’ve got to pick yourself up.”

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The Vikings began offseason drills last week, but Smith has not been a full participant. In a workout session Tuesday open to the media, he only did some work on the side.

“He’s been right on schedule with everything that (executive director of player health and performance) Tyler (Williams) and the doctors, where they want him to be,’’ said Minnesota coach Kevin O’Connell. “We’re not going to push him this early on in the offseason until we get the green light from the docs. … We’ll make sure that we’ve got a great plan for Irv all the way through this entire nine-week (workout) program that puts him in a real position to have a great training camp.”

Smith is “very confident’’ at being “100 percent” when he gets back on the field. That could be around when camp gets underway in late July.

“Training camp, that’s the plan,’’ Smith said. “I wouldn’t put an exact ‘this percent’ (on it then but) every day I’m getting stronger and faster.”

There doesn’t seem to be any concern from the Vikings about Smith being back to his old self once the regular season gets underway. And Minnesota certainly needs him.

Smith caught 36 passes in 2019, the most ever by a Vikings rookie tight end, and added 30 receptions in 2020 while missing three games due to injury. He was expected to take a big leap in 2021 after the Vikings released Kyle Rudolph, putting Smith in line to start. But then the injury hit.

“I had a great camp and was looking forward to the season, but that momentum and everything hasn’t slowed down,’’ Smith said. “I’m excited, just to be back in the building.”

With Smith out last season, Tyler Conklin became the starter and had 61 catches. Conklin left as a free agent to sign a three-year, $21 million contract with the New York Jets, and Smith said he was “proud of him” for getting such a lucrative deal.

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Now, Smith is the only tight end on the Vikings with much of a record as a receiver. They did sign free agent Johnny Mundt away from the Los Angeles Rams to serve as Smith’s backup. But Mundt, who has just 10 catches in five seasons, is regarded as more of a blocker.

O’Connell, the Rams’ offensive coordinator the past two seasons, is optimistic about getting good production out of Smith in 2022.

“That’s what we’re trying to do now, get him right back to where he was, if not better, if not stronger,’’ O’Connell said.

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