Prior to this morning, the NFL trade deadline had been a very quiet affair. Aside from Christian McCaffrey and Roquan Smith, there wasn’t much for NFL fans to get excited about. There were dozens of rumors, revolving mainly around running backs like Kareem Hunt, Cam Akers, and Nyheim Hines, but no actual moves were being made.
Then, WHAM-O! The Vikings came out of left field to make a move that had sort of flown under the radar.
Sure, there had been rumors surrounding 2020 Pro Bowler TJ Hockenson, but the interested teams were rather unknown. The Irv Smith Jr. injury likely put the Vikings in panic mode, and they likely hurried a deal for a game-changer at tight end. Minnesota didn’t have to give up too much either. According to reports, the Vikings are only surrendering a 2023 second and a 2024 fourth while getting a 2023 fourth and a conditional 2024 fourth in return. Based on Hockenson’s potential, I’d say that’s a solid deal. Maybe slightly in Detroit’s favor, but not in a landslide.
The question now is “How will this trade impact Minnesota’s offense? Does the addition of Hockenson change their standing as Super Bowl contenders? Is the team a sure-fire bet to win the NFC North now?” I guess that’s three questions, but the answer to all three is probably a resounding “Meh.”
Minnesota head coach Kevin O’Connell has never been a big proponent of using tight ends in his offenses. While he served as the Rams’ offensive coordinator, Tyler Higbee’s usage was inconsistent. Now, in his first year away from the Rams, we’ve seen Higbee’s targets, receptions, and yards go up tremendously. Hell, he’s currently on pace to set new career highs in those categories. He’s not getting into the endzone as much, but I’d be willing to bet that will change soon, especially if Cooper Kupp’s ankle injury limits him in Week 9. As the offensive coordinator for Washington in 2019, O’Connell’s tight ends — Jeremy Sprinkle, Vernon Davis, and Hale Hentges — recorded 73 total targets. Sure, that’s not insane talent, but you’d think with the low-end quarterback talent in that Washington locker room that year — Case Keenum, Dwayne Haskins, and Colt McCoy — checkdowns to the tight end would’ve been a very popular play call for the offense. They weren’t. O’Connell has never shown an ability to get his tight ends involved.
The most involved a tight end has ever been in any O’Connell offense has been Irv Smith Jr. this season. That probably has a lot to do with the team’s offensive coordinator, Wes Phillips, however. After all, prior to serving on O’Connell’s Minnesota staff, Phillips operated as the Los Angeles Rams’ tight ends coach. Still, despite a tight end-focused offensive coordinator, Smith was averaging less than five targets per game and fewer yards per game than he managed to put up in 2020 as Minnesota’s co-starter with Kyle Rudolph. Basically, despite a better offensive head coach and what was supposed to be a more tight end-centric offense, Smith still didn’t see his usage increase by all that much in 2022.
Hockenson is more talented than Smith, but he’s still not a better receiving option than either Justin Jefferson or Adam Thielen. Much like Smith, it’s likely that Hockenson will operate as the team’s third option in the passing game. He could see more targets than Smith, but I wouldn’t bank on Hockenson becoming the next Mark Andrews with this move. In fact, Hockenson’s usage could remain almost exactly the same. Removing his one enormous game this year — which only happened because of injuries to Amon-Ra St. Brown, D’Andre Swift, and DJ Chark — Hockenson averaged just over five targets, exactly three receptions, and 36 yards per game. He was Detroit’s number-two receiving option. He’ll now drop down the depth chart, but are we to expect Hockenson to put up better numbers? I don’t buy it.
Those numbers are slightly better than Smith’s and with improved quarterback play, there is a chance Hockenson could start averaging just over 50 yards per game — but don’t expect elite numbers.
Still, stats aren’t strictly where Hockenson could be an improvement. While Hockenson has never been an elite blocker (his prowess in that department, while touted in college, is still a work in progress at the NFL level), he is better than Smith. Kirk Cousins has suffered the second-most knockdowns of any NFL quarterback (33) and the fifth-most hurries (25). He’s experiencing pressure at the eighth-highest rate in the NFL (25.4 percent). Despite all that, Cousins is still near the top of the league in time to throw (T-4th in NFL; 2.5 seconds per dropback). Thus, even with slightly more time in the pocket, it’s unlikely that the Minnesota offense would become more downfield-focused.
Where Hockenson could make a huge difference is efficiency with his usage. Although Hockenson’s usage shouldn’t be monumentally higher than Smith’s, Hockenson could prove much more valuable given the reliability of his hands. In 2021, Hockenson recorded the second-lowest drop rate among qualifying tight ends (1.6 percent) and the highest contested catch rate (78.6 percent). Smith has not been good in either of those departments. I’m sure Vikings fans don’t want to revisit their loss against Philadelphia, but that image of Smith dropping a wide-open touchdown is probably still ingrained in their minds.
In 2022, Hockenson’s hands haven’t been as reliable. Through eight weeks, he’s got three drops, tied for the second-most in the NFL, and his drop rate of 10.3 percent is the highest of any tight end with at least 30 targets. That said, Hockenson has a pedigree of reliability with his hands. It’s a bad stretch, but Hockenson should start gravitating back toward his norm in that department.
Despite those drops, Hockenson still ranks fifth among tight ends with at least 30 targets in catch-in-traffic completion rate (55.6 percent). On three targets in traffic, Smith had yet to haul in a single pass in traffic. That’s where Hockenson could shine in Minnesota. In those third-and-short situations where Cousins would normally go to Jefferson on an out route or Cook/Mattison in the flat, Hockenson could excel in running quick hitches, drags, or stops just beyond the line of scrimmage. With defenses likely keying in on Jefferson and Thielen, Hockenson should have more space to operate, but even if he’s in traffic, he’s shown an ability to come away with the football.
All in all, Hockenson will (probably) not turn into an All-Pro on par with Travis Kelce, Mark Andrews, or George Kittle in Minnesota, but for the first time in his career, he’s got a shot at reaching the playoffs and that’s all he can really ask for.
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