Irv Smith Jr.'s quest for that elusive breakout season everyone has been predicting for over a year hit yet another snag Tuesday when the Vikings' fourth-year tight end underwent thumb surgery to repair an injury suffered Monday during the team's first padded practice.
Smith, who missed all last season because of a torn meniscus in his right knee, was injured early on in the practice and returned to the field to watch. The team's medical staff discussed the possibility of letting the thumb heal on its own but chose surgery as "the best move moving forward," 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" against the Packers on Sept. 11 at U.S. Bank Stadium, O'Connell said.
Already thin at the position, the Vikings now have only two healthy tight ends — Johnny Mundt and Ben Ellefson, a Hawley, Minn., native — with NFL regular-game experience. And the pair have only 11 NFL catches — 10 by Mundt — on 18 targets for 103 yards and no touchdowns between them.
Mundt, the 27-year-old former Ram who followed O'Connell and Vikings offensive coordinator Wes Phillips from Los Angeles after winning the Super Bowl, has played 47 games with five starts in five years since joining the league as a 6-4, 233-pound undrafted free agent out of Oregon.
"Johnny's a smart player," said Phillips, who coached the Rams' tight ends last year. "He's always going to know what to do. He's physical in the run game.
"In L.A., the defensive players started calling him 'Strong Hands Mundt.' He would throw those hands, and it wasn't a pass-game comment. Johnny's physical in the run game, he's explosive as a runner."
Mundt's career game as a pass catcher came against the Bears in 2020. He had three catches for 48 yards in a 24-10 win.
"We started calling him 'The Bear Killer' because it just happened that [starter Tyler] Higbee would be out when we played Chicago," Phillips said. "Every time Johnny got his opportunity, he just produced."
Ellefson, 25, is another run-blocking tight end at 6-3, 250. He has played 12 games with four starts, all with Jacksonville, as an undrafted rookie out of North Dakota State in 2020. He caught one ball for 10 yards with Jacksonville before joining the Vikings and catching none in five games.
The other healthy tight ends on the roster are 24-year-old second-year players Zach Davidson and Shaun Beyer and 23-year-old rookie Nick Muse. Davidson, a 6-7, 245-pounder punter and tight end out of Central Missouri, was a fifth-round pick in 2021. Muse, a 6-4, 249-pounder, was a seventh-round pick this year. Beyer spent part of last season with the Broncos as an undrafted rookie before signing with the Vikings ahead of camp.
"Anytime someone's dinged up — we all feel for Irv with how hard he's worked in the offseason to get to where he's at — but it just gives other guys opportunities to get in there and show what they can do," Phillips said.
"We're excited about obviously bringing Johnny Mundt here; Ben Ellefson has had a nice camp thus far; Zach Davidson is a talented guy that's getting better every day. We signed Shaun Beyer. So, we've got a big group of guys in there that are kind of vying for roles, and it will be good for them to get some more reps and see kind of how that plays out."
Smith, meanwhile, faces another road to recovery. The 2019 second-round draft pick caught 36 balls for 311 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie. He followed that up with 30 catches for 365 yards and five touchdowns and was poised to take off as the starter when Kyle Rudolph left after the 2020 season.
How long will it take for Smith to get back to where he was before Monday's injury?
"We'll just have to see where he's at when he gets back," Phillips said. "The good thing about it is, from a lower-half standpoint, 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, should be ready to go. I know he's hungry."