Vikings Claim Homegrown TE After Irv Smith Jr.’s Season-Ending Surgery

Ben Ellefson

Getty The Minnesota Vikings claimed tight end Ben Ellefson off waivers on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021.

The Minnesota Vikings can’t catch a break.

Starting tight end Irv Smith Jr. underwent knee surgery on Wednesday, September 1 and will require a four- to five-month recovery, ultimately shutting the third-year breakout candidate down for the season, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported.

In response, the Vikings claimed former North Dakota State product Ben Ellefson off waivers from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ellefson turned 25 on Wednesday and is a native of Hawley, Minnesota.

The Vikings also traded for New York Jets tight end Chris Hendron on Tuesday.

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Ellefson was a three-star recruit out of Hawley High School, where he caught 100 passes for 1,872 yards and 28 touchdowns in his career. He helped the Nuggets make three consecutive Class 2A state tournament appearances. Ellefson also is the school’s all-time leading scorer in basketball.

Winning three FCS national championships with the Bison, Ellefson was a strong contributor as a blocker in the run game. As a senior, he was a second-team All-American, catching 15 passes for 199 yards and five touchdowns in 15 games.

Ellefson went undrafted in 2020 but landed with the Jaguars. He had one catch on four targets in seven games and four starts a season ago.

NFL Network’s Lance Zeirlein praised Ellefson for his winning pedigree and intelligence on the field but saw him limited due to a lack of athleticism coming out of college.

“Ellefson comes from a winning background and is praised for his intelligence on and off the field. He plays with good instincts and soft hands when operating in space, but his lofty touchdown rate was primarily scheme-generated,” Zeirlein wrote. “His lack of athletic ability and functional quickness/speed puts him in a blocking tight end category, but he may not have the size and strength to handle those duties and survive his way onto an NFL roster.”

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 Where Ellefson Fits

Ellefson likely slots as the Vikings’ third tight end on the roster behind Tyler Conklin and Hendron. Both tight ends ahead of him are stronger receivers, however, Ellefson could prove to see plenty of playing time as a blocker.

Despite the moves to add tight end depth, coach Mike Zimmer did open up about moving to more three-wide receiver sets.

“Mike Zimmer said the Vikings were planning to use Irv Smith Jr. as a slot receiver on third downs. ‘Now we’ll have to go with more three-wide receiver, ‘Zimmer said,” per The Athletic‘s Chad Graff.

This would be a drastic change in philosophy after the Vikings used two-tight end sets on 455 snaps, the third-most in the NFL, per ESPN.

Fifth-round rookie Zach Davidson, a cutdown day casualty, is expected to sign on the Vikings’ practice squad.

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