Chris Herndon is no Irv Smith Jr., so the Minnesota Vikings will need to get creative

    Irv Smith Jr.'s injury puts Minnesota's offense behind. How much can Chris Herndon help Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offense this year?

    “Not very good.” That’s how Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer referred to his tight end depth this week. The Vikings placed Irv Smith Jr. on injured reserve with a significant meniscus injury. In fairness, that was before the Vikings traded for Chris Herndon, sending a fourth-round pick to the Jets in return. Minnesota also got a sixth-rounder back to even out the trade. But it’s not like the Vikings just picked up peak Shannon Sharpe for late-round draft compensation.

    What does Irv Smith Jr.’s injury mean for Minnesota’s offense?

    Smith’s injury was a gut punch. Entering Year 3, he was a huge part of the team’s plans to replace Kyle Rudolph, who signed with the New York Giants in free agency. But Smith is probably out for the season after getting hurt.

    On Wednesday, doctors repaired a bizarre injury that he mysteriously suffered in Minnesota’s preseason finale.

    What compounds Minnesota’s issues at the position? Fifth-round pick Zach Davidson is a project. Davidson’s selection was the NFL equivalent of purchasing a scratch-off. He is a raw but athletic prospect out of Division II Central Missouri and one that all 31 other teams passed on in the waiver claims process.

    Davidson returned to the Vikings’ roster on the practice squad, but the market says he’s still a year or two away from being an NFL talent.

    If there is a silver lining, it’s this: Kirk Cousins hasn’t been overly reliant on his tight ends during his three years in Minnesota. However, that might be a function of not having anyone worthy of high-volume targets in his huddle.

    Smith and Rudolph combined for 58 catches in 2020 after totaling 75 the year before. Still, where Smith’s loss could hurt the Vikings the most is in the red zone.

    Kirk Cousins will need to rely on Jefferson, Thielen in the passing game

    Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen are the engines that drive Minnesota’s passing game, but neither is particularly imposing physically.

    Jefferson, who exploded for 1,400 yards and 7 touchdowns as a rookie, is just 6-foot-1 and 203 pounds. Thielen is a touchdown machine, getting into the end zone on a staggering 18.9% of his receptions and 13% of his targets in 2021.

    Nevertheless, with Smith gone, defenses can bracket both of them near the goal line and dare Cousins to beat them with someone else. For Herndon to be that “someone else,” he’ll need to go through a professional metamorphosis.

    Herndon has just 7 receiving touchdowns on 103 career targets. Making matters worse, he recorded an 8.9% drop rate last year.

    “He was a guy that was kind of pretty good in most areas,” Zimmer said. “Decent blocker. Pretty good hands. Runs decent. Of all the tight ends we looked at, he was the one that we thought was the best option.”

    What is a more realistic hope for the Vikings in their search for a No. 3 option on the outside?

    Dede Westbrook. Hopefully, he returns to the level he reached while playing for the Jaguars in 2018 and 2019. During that time, he caught 8 touchdowns. Westbrook will never be the most dynamic receiver, but he’s got some game.

    His biggest question is health — Westbrook tore his ACL last October and didn’t play this preseason.

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