Preseason injuries bow to no man.
The world threw the Minnesota Vikings a curveball when tight end Irv Smith Jr. injured his knee in their final game of the preseason, requiring a meniscus surgery that could keep him out for the season. Smith was preparing to enter a potential breakout year, as he had risen to the top of the depth chart upon Kyle Rudolph’s departure to the New York Giants in free agency. Now, he’ll have to watch the 2021 season from the sideline.
Needing to fill Smith’s place on the roster, Minnesota sent a 2022 fourth-round pick to the New York Jets for tight end Chris Herndon and a 2022 sixth-round pick. Herndon, a three-year veteran, will look to have a bounce-back season with the change of scenery.
After an impressive rookie season in 2018 that featured 12 starts and 39 receptions for 502 yards and four touchdowns—good enough for first in receptions and touchdowns of all rookie tight ends and a selection to the PFWA All-Rookie Team—he faced several setbacks in New York. The NFL suspended Herndon for the first four games of the 2019 season after he violated their substance abuse policy, and while he was in the process of returning to the field, he strained his hamstring running routes. When he finally did return to action in Week 10, he broke his rib in his first game back.
The 2020 season also saw Herndon get off to a rough start. He struggled with drops, finishing the season with a concerning 8.9% drop rate to go along with two lost fumbles over 16 games (13 starts). He did seem to right the ship as the season went on, finishing the year with 31 receptions for 287 yards and three touchdowns.
The 2021 preseason didn’t go much better for Herndon. He missed practices in the spring with a tight hamstring, failed to impress the Jets’ new coaching staff, and watched a 28-year-old Tyler Kroft—now on his third team in seven years—build chemistry with rookie quarterback Zach Wilson and beat him out for the starting job in New York. The decision to let Herndon go wasn’t a hard one for the Jets, and the Vikings’ desperation for tight end depth after Smith’s injury made them the perfect trade partner.
Now, Minnesota hopes the change of scenery will mean a return to rookie form for Herndon while they reap the benefits of an inexpensive trade. He’s currently the second tight end on the Vikings’ depth chart behind fellow fourth-year Tyler Conklin—though Minnesota used two tight ends on 43.5% of plays in 2020. It’s likely we’ll see a good amount of Herndon in 2021 unless Smith makes a miraculous comeback before the end of the season. Surely that means the Vikings’ coaching staff has a lot of faith in Herndon and his potential, along with good reasoning for why he was the right trade target, right?
Well, not exactly. This is what head coach Mike Zimmer told ESPN about the Vikings’ decision to bring in their newest tight end:
“He was a guy that was kind of pretty good in most areas. 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.”
Uh… “kind of pretty good in most areas” and two uses each of “pretty good” and “decent” is not exactly a promising evaluation of talent from the guy whose job it is to do just that. Still, we have seen what Herndon is capable of when he’s at his best. Away from the added pressure on the field and extra media attention in New York, he has the potential to begin anew and rebuild his reputation with the Vikings.
For now, he’s got to learn a new offense and work on building a rapport with his new quarterback, Kirk Cousins. If Herndon manages to shake off the troubles of the last couple of seasons and treat 2021 as a fresh start, we may get to see him look like his rookie self, at least in flashes. After the loss of Smith, it’s exactly what the Vikings are hoping for.