Vikings ‘Secret Weapon’ on Track for Training Camp
The Minnesota Vikings holster two “secret weapons” heading into the 2022 season with a new general manager and head coach.
One is a running back who returned kicks for touchdowns like an Olympian in 2021. The other was injured for the entire campaign but enters his fourth season of duty this year.
Kene Nwangwu is the speedy halfback, and Irv Smith Jr. is the other weapon. And according to recent reports, Smith Jr. is on track to return for training camp.
Drafted in the 2nd Round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Smith Jr. missed all of the 2021 season with a torn meniscus. When the news hit last August, one of two recovery paths was possible — a short absence of weeks or long hiatus of months. The Alabama alumnus, unfortunately, was beset by the latter.
During Smith Jr.’s freshman and sophomore campaigns with the Vikings, he split targets with incumbent tight end, Kyle Rudolph. But in the free-agent period of 2021, Rudolph trekked to the New York Giants, where he was used sparingly by Daniel Jones and friends. With Rudolph gone, Smith Jr. was supposed to fully assume TE1 duties, but the meniscus team dampened that plan.
Like last offseason, when Rudolph departed, another Vikings TE1 left in free agency last month. Tyler Conklin, who filled in wonderfully for Smith Jr. in 2021, signed with the New York Jets at a handsome price tag. So, again, the deck is cleared for Smith Jr. to seize the moment, especially with an offense-first head coach in Kevin O’Connell. The Vikings fired longtime head coach Mike Zimmer in January, paving the way for an offensive era of football.
Smith Jr. should fit in tremendously with the vision. He’s a wide receiver inside a tight end’s body, known for athleticism and big-play prowess. Smith Jr. scores 10.6% of the time he touches the pigskin, and the Vikings will ask for a lot of that in 2022.
He also has youth on his side. Smith Jr. is younger than Kenny Pickett, a quarterback theorized to go off the draft board this Thursday night. At age 23, Smith Jr. still has time to establish himself as a premiere TE1. Most onlookers of the Vikings believe he just needs targets and good health.
And he will receive the targets, rest assured. In fact, Smith Jr. needs the audition as Minnesota’s TE1. The purple world blinked, and the final year of his rookie contract arrived. Performance in 2022 alone will determine Smith Jr.’s next contract. If it’s injury-riddled or underwhelming, he may not remain with the Vikings. But should he break off 900 yards and 11 touchdowns or so, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah will pay him handsomely around this time next year.
A Vikings tight end hasn’t eclipsed over 900 receiving yards in 41 years — Joe Senser (1,004 yards) in 1981.
Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. Subscribe to his daily YouTube Channel, VikesNow. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sally from Minneapolis. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).