The 2021 season was supposed to be the year where Irv Smith Jr. finally had his breakout moment with the Minnesota Vikings. Undergoing meniscus surgery this week, it is unknown how long the Minnesota Vikings tight end will be out of commission.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has been here before. The most notable trade Spielman made to replace a key starter shortly before the season began was in 2016 when the Vikings traded for Sam Bradford after Teddy Bridgewater’s sudden injury. Last season, Yannick Ngakoue was acquired once it became known Danielle Hunter would miss the entire season.
With Irv Smith’s unfortunate injury development, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Minnesota Vikings decide to trade for a tight end before Week 1. We identify five Vikings’ tight end trade targets to help fill Smith’s shoes in 2021.
Minnesota Vikings acquire three-time Pro Bowl TE Zach Ertz
Longtime Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz requested a trade this past offseason after eight seasons with the team. Now in a backup role behind Dallas Goedert, Ertz’s best season came in 2018 when he hauled in 116 passes for 1,163 yards. Still just 30 years old, Ertz should have plenty of tread left on the tires.
The Vikings don’t know when Smith Jr. may return. Tyler Conklin is a more-than-capable backup, but the Vikings need two tight ends they can rely on. Adding Ertz for a season while their younger options develop could be the solution both Ertz and the Vikings are looking for ahead of Week 1.
David Njoku gives Minnesota Vikings another versatile weapon
Since being selected in the first round in the 2017 NFL Draft, David Njoku has not yet lived up to his draft pedigree in Cleveland. Employed in a Kevin Stefanski offense stuck behind Austin Hooper, the Browns utilize Njoku in a similar manner as Vikings fans have seen from Smith Jr. The Browns also drafted Harrison Bryant in the fourth round last year, giving them a ready-to-go replacement.
Njoku is heading into his contract year, meaning he’s looking for an opportunity to prove himself ahead of what he hopes will be a big payday in 2022 free agency. Just 25 years old, Njoku somehow already has four years of NFL experience. His best season as a pass-catcher came in 2018 when he hauled in 56 receptions for 639 yards. Njoku has been the subject of trade rumors in the past, even reportedly requesting a path out of Cleveland, but has seemingly since bought in.
Njoku has also improved as a blocker since entering the league, finishing last season as the second-best pass-blocking tight end per Pro Football Focus. The Vikings trading for Njoku would put him into an offense he’s already familiar with as the Stefanski-Kubiak offenses are not all that different. A Njoku-Vikings trade could be the perfect solution for everyone involved.
Mo Alie-Cox heads to team he dominated in 2020
The Minnesota Vikings experienced first-hand just how good Mo Alie-Cox can be at times last season when he racked up a career-high 111 receiving yards against them in Week 2. A former college basketball standout at VCU, Alie-Cox has developed from an undrafted free agent who hadn’t played football since his freshman year in high school into a near starter at the NFL level.
Reaching new career-highs in 2020, the Indianapolis Colts placed a second-round tender on Alie-Cox in free agency to keep him around for another season. Alie-Cox has the potential to be a matchup nightmare in the red zone, using his strength and quickness to get open. He also is effective with the ball in his hands, tallying nearly half (46%) of his yards after the catch in 2020.
Alie-Cox entered training camp competing with Jack Doyle for the starting tight end role with the Colts. Just how available Alie-Cox may be remains to be seen. However, the Colts do have fourth-round rookie Kylen Granson generating plenty of buzz in camp. They could be willing to part with the elder Alie-Cox to see what they have in Granson.
Cameron Brate brings his Super Bowl ring to the Minnesota Vikings
Fresh off winning a Super Bowl, Cameron Brate and possibly even O.J. Howard may be available in trade for the right price. The Buccaneers have Rob Gronkowski. And while Tom Brady likes utilizing two tight ends, they currently have an embarrassment of riches at the position. Howard offers more long-term potential, but Brate has been more dependable.
Howard is 26, Gronk is 32, and Brate is 30 years old. The Bucs would probably prefer to keep Howard around since he could still play a major role alongside Gronk for a number of years.
Whereas Brate might not be seen as a core piece of their future. Since the Bucs drafted Howard in 2017, Brate has grown accustomed to a backup tight end role. Yet he’s still remained productive, topping 280 yards each season since 2015.
Notably, Howard’s senior season at Alabama was Irv Smith’s redshirt year with the Crimson Tide. Either way, the Vikings should be giving the Buccaneers a call to see how much it would cost to trade for one of their backup tight ends.
Let the Kyle Rudolph-Minnesota Vikings reunion begin
The Vikings moved on from longtime fan favorite Kyle Rudolph this offseason in an attempt to cut costs. Before roster cuts have been made, the Vikings are estimated to have roughly $7 million in cap space, leaving them some wiggle room. Maybe in hindsight, they could have afforded Rudolph?
If given the option for a do-over, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Rudolph would choose the same path. Nothing against what the Giants are building, but Rudolph signed in New York to be placed in a similar position he was already in with the Vikings. Depending on the severity of Smith’s injury, Rudolph may be able to step right back into the same offense he spent so many years perfecting.
The Vikings didn’t replace Rudolph this offseason, but they also imagined their top two tight ends would be ready to go for Week 1. A Kyle Rudolph trade back to the Vikings just a few months after his release would be odd, but crazier things have happened.
If the Vikings would prefer to hold onto their assets, veteran free agents such as Tyler Eifert, Trey Burton, and Charles Clay all remain available as well. Expect Rick Spielman to keep a close eye on roster cuts before swinging a trade for a new tight end.