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Vikings mailbag: Irv Smith injury concerns, offensive line questions and staying healthy

The Vikings have concluded their first week of training camp, and with that comes a bevy of fan questions. With that in mind, I put out a call on Twitter asking for your biggest questions surrounding the team.

You asked about the Vikings’ tight end situation, the team’s training program, the offensive line and the state of the 2021 draft class. You also asked about bicycle physics.

So I got to answering.

If Irv Smith Jr.’s injury lingers into the regular season, will the Vikings bring in a tight end from the outside via trade or free agency? — @purplebuckeye

The Vikings have indicated that they want to “replace Irv” with different players at different times performing different roles. This will occasionally mean having a wide receiver in to block in three- or four-wide sets or having C.J. Ham fulfill those responsibilities either in-line, as the wing or in the slot. On top of that, the remaining tight ends will play a role in directly filling his shoes, with Johnny Mundt, Ben Ellefson and Zach Davidson theoretically getting bigger opportunities to shine.

Those are interesting possibilities, but if Smith is out longer than they think — or if he has a setback — they may pursue trade or free-agent options. There aren’t many tight ends likely to be on the trade market, especially any who could fill a field-stretching role or even Smith’s dual blocking-receiving role.

So a player like Jets tight end Trevon Wesco wouldn’t be a good fit as he’s more of a blocker. The Vikings have Ellefson and Ham for that. The same is true for Dolphins tight end Durham Smythe. The best option might be New England tight end Devin Asiasi, a highly drafted and versatile tight end who has been overshadowed by free-agent signings Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry.

The Ravens just drafted two tight ends to go with Mark Andrews, but it’s unlikely that Nick Boyle, who might be on the outs as a result, would be much help.

Other than the Patriots, the best option might be 2021 fourth-round pick Kylen Granson of the Colts. They just signed Mo Alie-Cox to a three-year deal and drafted two tight ends this year, so the Vikings could investigate that option. He’s a speedy pass catcher, so that could be a good fit.

Free agency has some intriguing options, including former Ram Jared Cook. He’s familiar with the system and is still athletic. Otherwise, Eric Ebron and Blake Jarwin could fill in as well, and former Viking MyCole Pruitt is available, too.

Why do you think the narrative surrounding Irv Smith hasn’t been more negative given his lack of results since being drafted? We hear about his athleticism and talent, but his on-field production has been meh. — @TimRizzo

There has been every indication that the big tight end is talented enough to produce. In 2020, when Kyle Rudolph was injured over the final four games of the season, Smith generated 45 yards a game — equivalent to 777 yards over a 17-game season. With Rudolph gone in 2021, many people expected Smith’s production to take a major step forward. But he didn’t get on the field because of an MCL injury. That’s not his fault, and it doesn’t prove he can’t produce when given a full opportunity. The only evidence we have is that he’s productive.

Have you seen Tyler Williams impact how the Vikings operate in any way so far? Sounds like he contributed to some healthy Rams teams. I’m curious if there are any noticeable changes compared to previous years that may stem from him. — @Tucktuckgrayduc

Tyler Williams is the Vikings’ new executive director of player health and performance. Generally speaking, the answer to these sorts of questions would be no. We don’t usually see the impact that executives have, especially on the training side. But in this case, the differences are clear enough on our end that you can see how things change.

On the results side, an area that is difficult to evaluate because of the level of randomness involved, the Vikings have gone through the first week of camp healthier than I can ever remember. While the Irv Smith Jr. thumb injury is a big concern, there has always been some injury issue looming over an important player and, more tellingly, far more injuries in the past than there are now.

On the process side, the Vikings are being far more active with regard to load management. There are individualized schedules for each player based on their injury histories that determine their level of participation. In the old regime, it would be unlikely that Jesse Davis would take that many rest days because he doesn’t quite have the tenure of someone like Patrick Peterson or Harrison Smith. But with this regime, his specific injury history encourages the Vikings to be a bit more cautious.

Former head coach Mike Zimmer wasn’t as resistant to load management as you might think given his old-school reputation, but he didn’t fall in love with the concept either. And it certainly wasn’t as individualized as the team’s approach has been this summer. Not only that, the current coaching staff doesn’t seem nearly as skeptical of player health concerns, like Zimmer had been with players like Josh Robinson, Danielle Hunter and Sharrif Floyd.

On top of that, we’re seeing players warming up in the weight room, with some even getting individual stretching help from a trainer before hitting the field. That combined with a number of other things happening behind closed doors could explain why we’re seeing an improvement in player availability.

With Zach Davidson emerging as an offensive weapon, do you think he could still serve as the backup punter in a pinch since he has the experience? At 6-foot-7, how good do you think he’d be as a quarterback on a trick-play tight end pass? — @Gizanked

I have to imagine that the Vikings would likely just go for it on fourth downs if they lost their punter midgame to an injury. But if they couldn’t, they might choose Davidson over having kicker Greg Joseph attempt to punt.

I’m going to guess that he can’t throw the ball that well, but having him run the ball from the punter position has to be extremely enticing. I remember Adam Thielen’s 41-yard run from the punt-protector spot back when he was primarily a special-teamer. There are some opportunities there.

What would you put the chances of the right guard spot going to Chris Reed versus Ed Ingram versus Jesse Davis? Is it 33/33/33? — @SportsDPJ

For me, I don’t see it as even odds. I think Davis is the favorite, and I would say he has a 65 percent chance or so of being the Week 1 starter, maybe higher. That leaves a 35 percent chance between Ingram and Reed, and I’d say the split there is probably 25-10.

Davis has been taking the majority of the snaps with the first team at right guard. When Davis takes a day off for load management, we have seen Ingram and Reed rotate in, with Reed taking a few more of those reps.

The reason I still put Ingram above Reed is that Reed seems to be trying his luck at center and because I think the Vikings would trust Ingram’s upside a bit more. Still, Ingram has had some issues maintaining his position in offensive line drills in camp and hasn’t looked as stout as Davis.

If you could switch out one Vikings 2022 draft pick for another player who was available at that point in the draft, who would you switch to most improve the team? — @Thetwostooges2

It’s a little bit unfair because I have some knowledge of how this other player has been performing in camp, but I’m picking center/guard Luke Fortner from Kentucky, who was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars just a few spots after Ed Ingram went to the Vikings.

Fortner has impressed both the coaching staff and third-party observers and has already pushed Tyler Shatley, whom the Jaguars intended to start at center, to left guard. Not only would this help resolve the problem the Vikings have with Garrett Bradbury at center, but it would give them flexible depth along the offensive line.

He’s as good a fit for the athletic demands of the zone-blocking system as Ingram, doesn’t carry the same off-field questions and has a stronger history of production as PFF’s seventh-rated offensive guard in the FBS last year. By contrast, Ingram ranked 60th among guards.

How many 2021 draft picks are at risk of not making the 53-man roster? — @rellim_nodnarb

The Vikings made 11 picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, and a few of them will play big roles on the team, including first-round pick Christian Darrisaw and fourth-round pick Camryn Bynum. Not only that, fourth-round pick Kene Nwangwu and fifth-round pick Ihmir Smith-Marsette will serve valuable special teams functions and could also play roles as depth players. There’s also a chance we see some action from sixth-round pick Jaylen Twyman and fifth-round pick Zach Davidson (see above). All in all, it’s not as bad a draft as people seem to think.

But the question points to a significant problem. The Vikings made four picks in the third round and might find three of them off the roster by the beginning of the season.

Chazz Surratt and Wyatt Davis are at significant risk of not making the roster, and I had both of them being cut in my most recent 53-man roster projection. Not only that, Kellen Mond has been underperforming in camp, and I placed him as the third quarterback on the roster. Many teams carry only two QBs.

On top of that, fourth-round pick Janarius Robinson is also at risk of not making the roster. Minnesota may only keep five edge rushers, and it seems just as likely that free agents Andre Mintze, Zach McCloud or Luiji Vilain could take that spot.

Finally, Twyman and Davidson seem to be coin flips — they’re just as likely to make the roster as miss it. If the Vikings feel they need more depth at nose tackle, they could just as easily opt into Tyarise Stevenson or T.Y. McGill over Twyman. Davidson was in a precarious position as well, though his role seems more certain now with the Irv Smith injury.

That means somewhere between two to six players from that class are at risk. Six sounds like a lot, more than half the class. Yes, the class was disappointing, but it doesn’t feel like the big bust everyone says it is.

Who gets to decide which questions are compelling enough for your fancy mailbag? — @theStevenRuiz

I put all the questions into a giant burlap sack and pick them out at random.

How does a bike stay upright when it’s in motion?@ryaneatscake

I assumed the answer to this was the conservation of angular momentum, where spinning a wheel will transfer energy from one direction or another into making sure the wheel continues spinning — and because the wheel primarily spins along one plane, there’s not much ability for energy to move it in the direction of other planes. That is not the answer (or not the whole answer).

Instead, here’s a MinutePhysics video that answers it. Evidently, bikes are constructed in such a way that they are self-correcting while moving. The axis of the front wheel is angled backward, so the bike makes contact with the ground ahead of the central axis. That means the bike will turn in the direction in which it is tipping, which — as it moves forward — brings the bike’s wheels back under its center of gravity.

(Photo: Brad Rempel / USA Today)

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