The thumb injury to Vikings starting tight end Irv Smith Jr. happened on Monday afternoon during the 11-on-11 portion of practice. He got his tangled up on a simple block, according to coach Kevin O’Connell, and the Vikings ultimately decided surgery was the best option.
“If it was another position, where catching the football isn’t such a necessity like it is for a guy like Irv, we might tape that thing up and get him right back out there,” O’Connell said. “We wanted to fix it and use this time smartly and make sure we give Irv the best chance to have a great 2022 season.”
The Vikings still have a goal of Smith being 100 percent healthy for the Sep. 11 season opener against the Green Bay Packers. That timetable will ultimately be determined by how Smith progresses through the recovery process over the next month.
“All updates coming out of Irv’s surgery were phenomenal,” O’Connell said. “His process has already begun to get him back on the grass for us as soon as possible.”
In the meantime, the Vikings need the collection of players behind Smith on the depth chart to step up. Not much is known about Johnny Mundt, Zach Davidson, and Ben Ellefson, the trio of tight ends who will be relied upon to fill the void throughout the rest of training camp and into the preseason.
“We have some depth there,” O’Connell said. “We have some guys we really want to see handle the different roles.”
Here’s a breakdown of the Vikings’ remaining three tight ends:
Johnny Mundt, 27, is the elder statesman of the group. He signed with the Los Angeles Rams as an undrafted free agent on April 29, 2017 and spent his whole career with the organization before signing with the Vikings this offseason.
Though he spent most of his time with the Rams as a blocker, and found a lot of success in that role, Mundt believes he has some untapped potential as a pass catcher. He has 10 catches for 93 yards across 47 career games.
There’s no doubt that Mundt getting to work with O’Connell in Los Angeles will help his cause this season. Even quarterback Kirk Cousins has used Mundt as a sounding board early in training camp while adapting to the new scheme.
“It’s fun because he was in this system,” said Cousins, who mentioned “a phenomenal catch” Mundt made early in training camp. “There’s times when I’m leaning on him to tell me what he’s feeling or seeing.”
Zach Davidson, 24, was said be “raw as sushi” in one predraft scouting report. Still, the Vikings selected him in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
After watching most of the games last season as an inactive player, Davidson looks like he could be ready to make an impact this season. He has turned some heads in training camp so far, garnering seen some reps with the first team in Smith’s absence. He has made a couple of big catches this week and it’s easy to see his 6-foot-7, 245-pound frame creating some mismatches this season.
“It’s really exciting because I see a lot of ability in him,” Cousins said. “You see a high ceiling and a desire to work and get better. It’s exciting to work with a guy like that where we see all this potential down the road. It’s similar to how I felt about (former Vikings tight end) Tyler Conklin three or four years ago. You want to see that development happen, and it’s going to.”
If Mundt and Davidson are going to fill the void as pass catchers with Smith out of the lineup, Ben Ellefson, 25, is going to be used primarily as an extra blocker. The native of Hawley, Minn., saw some action with his home-state Vikings last season after being claimed off waivers in the preseason.
As much as he might be limited in the things he can do on the field, Ellefson has a lot of value as someone who can either help protect Cousins in the pocket or help pave the way for running back Dalvin Cook at the second level.
If Ellefson is able to play some trust in the preseason, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him earn some playing time during the regular season.