Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith Jr. was primed to break out this season.
The 2019 second-round pick from Alabama wound up injuring his meniscus in the preseason finale against Kansas City and went under the knife Sept. 1 to repair his damaged knee.
Minnesota’s attempt to replace Smith Jr.’s probable production -- and the void left by former Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph -- has been a 10-week long undertaking that is finally reaping some reward.
Tyler Conklin, selected three rounds later and one year earlier than Smith Jr., added a pair of touchdowns in Sunday’s win to his 2021 totals. He’s up to 35 receptions for 353 yards and three scores.
The Central Michigan product hasn’t always been a focal point in the passing game this year -- that’s changed as of late -- but has played 80% or more of the team’s snaps on offense in six of nine games.
Over the last four, Conklin has really come into his own, and embraced his role as a pass catcher. He’s been targeted at least five times in each game since the overtime win against Carolina, averaging four catches for 46 yards per game in that span. Conklin saw 5+ targets just twice and averaged fewer than 35 yards receiving per outing in the five games beforehand. In other words, he’s evolving.
Perhaps, so too, are some of the other players at the position.
Minnesota acquired tight end Chris Herndon from the Jets on Aug. 31, trying to salvage a group intended to be a key part of the offense. Herndon has yet to catch more than one pass in a game as a Viking, but there’s at least noticeable progression and increased usage his last four times out.
Herndon has played 71 snaps on offense since Week 6 -- he totaled 50 the first five weeks of the season -- and made his second start Sunday after also starting for Minnesota in its primetime loss to Dallas.
His 23 plays against Los Angeles accounted for 29% of the team’s offensive snaps, which ranks as his top snap-count share on the year. Best of all, Herndon got the ball rolling for the Vikes in their fourth win by taking Kirk Cousins’ first pass attempt 14 yards -- double the distance of his previous season-long catch.
Veteran journeyman tight end Luke Stocker also has carved out some responsibility in Minnesota’s offense since signing with the team’s practice squad in early October, though it’s more of a behind-the-scenes type of role. Stocker, known for his prowess as a blocker, has played 10, 17, 18 and 20 snaps in his first four games with the Vikings. He has hauled in his only two targets for 12 yards.
They’re each playing different tunes and contributing in different ways, but it’s worth noting that Conklin, Herndon and Stocker have made strides to account for the lost potential of Smith Jr.
Other notes from Sunday’s snap counts:
-- Dede Westbrook, who latched on with the Vikings in July and was supposed to vie for snaps at the third wide receiver spot, had a breakthrough game of sorts Sunday -- not on offense, he played single-digit snaps (5) for the fifth time this season -- as a punt returner. Westbrook fielded three punts and totaled 69 return yards. He took Los Angeles’ first boot of the game 45 yards into Chargers territory. Westbrook had 12 punt returns for 52 yards to his name before Sunday.
-- For the first time this year, K.J. Osborn, who defeated Westbrook for the bulk of snaps as Minnesota’s third wide receiver, finished the game without a catch. Osborn was targeted just once by Cousins despite playing 41 of 74 snaps (52%) on offense, and seven different players catching passes.
-- Linebacker Nick Vigil saw 100% of the defensive snaps Sunday after Anthony Barr was ruled out -- Barr’s absence was seemingly precautionary after playing all 98 snaps in the Week 9 overtime loss to Baltimore. It was the first game that Vigil didn’t come off the field since Week 4, the last contest before Barr returned from an 18-game hiatus. Vigil, however, wasn’t close to as productive as he’d been in a starter’s role at the beginning of the season. The former third-round pick tallied two tackles (one solo) in Sunday’s win. He racked up 30 across his first four starts.
-- As mentioned in our weekly Upon Further Review article, rookie safety Camryn Bynum delivered an encore performance seven days after collecting 12 tackles and an interception in his first NFL start. Bynum, again, filled the role of five-time Pro Bowl selection Harrison Smith in the secondary and impressed with six tackles, one sack and one pass defensed Sunday. He’s played 157 of 157 possible snaps on defense the past two weeks and has come up with several impactful plays.
-- Second-year linebacker Blake Lynch, a special teams standout, notched his fifth career start on defense and played 19 snaps Sunday -- his first defensive snaps since the loss to Cleveland in Week 4 (remember Barr returned the following game). Lynch tied Bynum and cornerback Bashaud Breeland -- who played all but one snap on defense (58) -- with six tackles, the second most on the team.
-- Defensive lineman Eddie Yarbrough made his 2021 debut Sunday, two days after being signed to the active roster. Yarbrough didn’t play a big role, he saw just four snaps on defense -- and three on special teams -- and didn’t record any statistics, but nonetheless provided Minnesota’s short-handed defense some depth. In case the name sounds familiar, Yarbrough appeared in four games for Minnesota in 2020.