Approaching free agency for the first time in his career, Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith Jr. bid a premature farewell to his home of the past four years.
A week after the Vikings’ season-ending loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Wild Card round, Smith posted a series of photos on his Instagram with the caption: “God is the Greatest! Minnesota, I love you and thank you💜 #Year4” — a signal Smith will be testing his fate in free agency this offseason.
A 2019 second-round pick, Smith was the apparent heir to Kyle Rudolph‘s role in the offense but struggled with injury throughout his tenure. After Rudolph’s release ahead of the 2021 season, Smith had an opportunity to take the No. 1 tight end role but suffered a torn meniscus that required season-ending surgery.
This season was a prove-it year for Smith, who struggled to begin the season after suffering a thumb injury that required surgery during training camp. Smith landed on the injured reserve list for a high ankle sprain just days before the trade deadline, which prompted Minnesota to trade for T.J. Hockenson midseason to bolster the roster amid a 7-1 start to the season. Smith returned in time for the postseason, catching one pass for a 3-yard touchdown against the Giants.
Minnesota could still re-sign Smith, however, the Vikings are over the salary cap and must rebuild the defense. Smith is expected to test free agency for a No. 1 tight end role elsewhere along with a more lucrative contract. Injury concerns aside, Smith is considered a solid pass-catching tight end. Spotrac estimated he could garner a deal worth $10.2 million a year in free agency.
However, if he can’t find a willing suitor, he could come back to Minnesota at a team discount behind Hockenson.
In 37 career games, Smith caught 91 passes for 858 yards and nine touchdowns.
Pressure is on Vikings to Pay New Era of Pass Catchers
The Vikings are expected to make Justin Jefferson the highest-paid receiver in league history.
They would be wise to do so this offseason before player contracts rise after the 2023 salary cap exploded to a reported $224.8 million, per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.
However, Minnesota also has contract negotiations on the horizon with Hockenson, who will play on a fifth-year option for the 2023 season before his contract expires. Hockeson is expected to garner a top-five salary at his position, which could exceed $14 million a year, according to Spotrac.
Jefferson’s true payday won’t come until the 2024 season when the first year of his potential extension kicks in. But the Vikings will have. to get their finances in order with additional budding players expecting to be paid up to their potential.
Next Big Contract Ahead is LT Christian Darrisaw
After a sophomore season where he graded out as the second-best tackle in the league by Pro Football Focus, left tackle Christian Darrisaw looks like a franchise tackle for the next decade.
Minnesota will enjoy top-tier play from Darrisaw at a discount through the 2024 season before his contract expires. Expect the Vikings to extend him and exercise his fifth-year option as well.
That gives the Vikings a top-five receiver, tight end and a pair of Pro Bowl tackles in Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill to build around for the future while the defense doesn’t appear to have any players guaranteed to strike a lucrative second deal yet.