The Minnesota Vikings‘ tight end room underwent a shuffle this week that offers optimism for the position entering the postseason.
Cutting rookie tight end Nick Muse, drafted in the seventh round last April, the Vikings made room to activate Irv Smith Jr. off the injured reserve list. Smith is in line to play his first game on Sunday against the Chicago Bears after missing nine games due to a high ankle sprain.
Smith returns to the roster in a new role as the presumptive second tight end behind T.J. Hockenson, who was acquired at the trade deadline just two days after Smith went down with his injury. It will be the first time the Vikings will get a chance to deploy the tandem of fourth-year tight ends.
“It’s unique …to get a player of Irv’s caliber back at this point in the season,” Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell said in a January 6 press conference. “You talk about depth charts … but when you get into different personnel groupings… to have a guy like that joining T.J. and (third tight end) Johnny (Mundt) is a real positive.”
Pioneer Press reporter Chris Tomasson said the Vikings hope to re-sign Muse to the team’s practice squad, according to a source. Muse played in 10 games this season, all on special teams.
Vikings’ T.J. Hockenson Thrilled to Have Irv Smith Jr. Back
Hockenson may have been the de-facto replacement to Smith, the tandem of the 2019 draftees will play side-by-side for the remainder of the season.
“It’s awesome,’’ Hockenson said of Smith returning, per Tomasson. “I’m so excited to be able to be out there with him. … You can put either one of us on the same side of the ball or put us on opposite sides, just to be able to stretch the field. It’s a great complement.”
Smith is set to reach free agency in the offseason and is unlikely to strike a contract in Minnesota with Hockenson still here on a fifth-year option, which the Detroit Lions exercised for former the first-round pick.
The Vikings likely won’t have an opportunity to have this talented of a tight end room in the future, and it could be a piece to the team turning around its recent struggles on offense.
More Heavy TE Sets Could Be Vikings’ Recipe for Success
With starting right tackle Brian O’Neill out for the season, the Vikings are going to need more help on the offensive line. That comes in the form of keeping the running back or tight ends at home to help fend off opposing pass-rushers.
But with a stable of capable tight ends, the Vikings could deploy more deception into their offense by deploying two to three tight ends as both pass- and run-blockers or receivers.
“It’s easy to get excited about coaching Justin [Jefferson] and Kirk [Cousins] and Dalvin [Cook] and the rest of our skill guys, but when you think about tight ends and backs and the versatility and flexibility it gives you as a play caller…throw it out there and see what you’re going to get defensively, and then allow your guys to try to find an advantage with angles and leverage and things from there in the run game and matchups in the pass game,” O’Connell said, per Purple Insider’s Matthew Coller. “It was definitely something I thought about.”