At the 2022 NFL Trade Deadline, the Minnesota Vikings swung a massive deal with the divisional rival Detroit Lions, trading a 2023 second-round pick and a 2024 third-round pick for a 2023 fourth-round pick, a conditional 2024 fourth-round pick (it becomes a fifth-rounder if the Vikings win a playoff game), and the services of Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson.
The acquisition of Hockenson gives the Vikings their best tight end since the prime days of franchise icon Kyle Rudolph. Despite the high-octane scoring pace this offense is at this year (their 24.7 points per game are tied with the Lions for ninth-best in the league), tight end was the primary weakness of this unit. It didn’t help that primary starter Irv Smith Jr. proved once again that he’s made out of paper mache this past weekend against Arizona, as he is now out for possibly the rest of the season with a high-ankle sprain.
So, now for the question all Vikings fans have been wondering- how will Hockenson fit into the team’s offense?
Hockenson Will Take On A Role Similar To What He Had In Detroit
Hockenson was the Lions’ primary pass-catching weapon until 2021, when rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown broke onto the scene and asserted himself as the team’s alpha dog receiver. This season has seen St. Brown take on a bigger role in the Lions offense, leaving Hockenson as a close second option in the system along with receiver Josh Reynolds, someone who Lions quarterback Jared Goff has chemistry with dating back to their Los Angeles Rams days.
I’m here to tell you this: Hockenson’s role in Minnesota will be similar to his role in Detroit, but it has the chance to get bigger.
It’s well known that the Vikings have an alpha dog receiver, who goes by the name of Justin Jefferson. In case you haven’t heard, he’s pretty good. The number two receiver in Minnesota’s offense right now is 32-year-old Adam Thielen, who has been reliable to start the year but has started to show his age a little bit and has a history of injuries. Thielen has yet to top 72 yards in a game this year and has only one 100-yard game in his past 24 games.
K.J. Osborn, the Vikings’ third receiver, has taken a step back this year. Outside of a Week 3 game against the Lions where he posted five catches for 73 yards and the game-winning touchdown, Osborn has been largely invisible this year. He has only matched five catches once, has only scored once, and has yet to top 41 yards in a game.
This all leads back to Hockenson. Similar to what he was in Detroit, he will likely be a co-second option in the Vikings offense this year. However, the inconsistency provided by Thielen and Osborn will provide him with more opportunities to have big games. Hockenson should make for a good second option in the passing game and if used correctly, could become really dangerous. Current Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell coached Rams starting tight end Tyler Higbee to two seasons that saw his stats average 52 catches, 540 yards, and five scores per season. Knowing the below average tight end play that has plagued the Vikings since 2019, a lot of fans would kill for Hockenson to have those numbers in this offense.
However, there is something that could Hockenson back entirely…
Kirk Cousins Has Been Terrible When Targeting His Tight Ends This Season
Injuries to both Smith Jr. and Ben Ellefson plus the ineffectiveness of Johnny Mundt haven’t helped, but Kirk Cousins has been pretty bad when targeting his tight ends this year.
Cousins has targeted his tight ends on just 18.9 percent of his passes this year, which ranks 20th in the NFL. Also of note: his QBR when targeting the position ranks 30th and his passer rating when targeting the position is dead last in the NFL out of 33 qualified passers.
Maybe Cousins’ lack of success when targeting tight ends has been due to injuries and ineffectiveness by the position, but maybe Cousins just hasn’t been great with his tight ends. The arrival of Hockenson to the offense will tell us more about both Cousins and the tight end position as a whole.
So, What Should We Expect From Hockenson This Year?
I’m not sure how high Vikings fans’ expectations are for Hockenson this year, but I can honestly say this: temper them for now.
Outside of a game where he went berserk for eight catches, 179 yards, and two scores against the Seattle Seahawks, Hockenson has been good, not great this year. He’s yet to top four catches or 80 yards in a game this year, and has only scored once (which was, coincidentally, against the Vikings).
Also, there are a lot of mouths to feed in the Vikings offense. Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook are the two most important offensive players this team has right now, and they must get their touches when necessary. After that, Hockenson will be in the category of Thielen, Osborn, Alexander Mattison, and even Jalen Reagor: players fighting to get their mouths fed aka getting their touches.
Don’t be upset if Hockenson doesn’t get the ball a lot in Minnesota. He wasn’t meant to be the number one option in the passing game. However, if he can make a big catch or score a big touchdown during a big game or two later this season, he will prove his worth. The Vikings brought him here to be a crucial playmaker, and he will fit right into the offense. He may not show it right away, but he will prove his worth to this team at some point this year. If he can average around what Higbee averaged in Los Angeles during his two years under O’Connell, that would be very acceptable by Viking tight end standards.
Fun fact: no Viking tight end has topped 600 yards in a season since 2018 and no Viking tight end has made the Pro Bowl since 2017, both feats accomplished by Rudolph. It’d be really nice to see Hockenson become the next Rudolph, but please temper expectations for now.