Previous to this morning, the NFL commerce deadline had been a really quiet affair. Apart from Christian McCaffrey and Roquan Smith, there wasn’t a lot for NFL followers to get enthusiastic about. There have been dozens of rumors, revolving primarily round operating backs like Kareem Hunt, Cam Akers, and Nyheim Hines, however no precise strikes had been being made.
Then, WHAM-O! The Vikings got here out of left area to make a transfer that had type of flown underneath the radar.
Positive, there had been rumors surrounding 2020 Professional Bowler TJ Hockenson, however the groups had been moderately unknown. The Irv Smith Jr. harm possible put the Vikings in panic mode, and so they possible hurried a deal for a game-changer at tight finish. Minnesota didn’t have to surrender an excessive amount of both. In response to stories, the Vikings are solely surrendering a 2023 second and a 2024 fourth whereas getting a 2023 fourth and a conditional 2024 fourth in return. Based mostly on Hockenson’s potential, I’d say that’s a strong deal. Perhaps barely in Detroit’s favor, however 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 strain on the eighth-highest charge within the NFL (25.4 %). Regardless of all that, Cousins remains to be close to the highest of the league in time to throw (T-4th in NFL; 2.5 seconds per dropback). Thus, even with barely extra time within the pocket, it’s unlikely that the Minnesota offense would develop into extra downfield-focused.
The place Hockenson might make an enormous distinction is effectivity along with his utilization. Though Hockenson’s utilization shouldn’t be monumentally larger than Smith’s, Hockenson might show way more beneficial given the reliability of his fingers. In 2021, Hockenson recorded the second-lowest drop charge amongst qualifying tight ends (1.6 %) and the very best contested catch charge (78.6 %). Smith has not been good in both of these departments. I’m positive Vikings followers don’t wish to revisit their loss in opposition to Philadelphia, however that picture of Smith dropping a wide-open landing might be nonetheless ingrained of their minds.
In 2022, Hockenson’s fingers haven’t been as dependable. By means of eight weeks, he’s obtained three drops, tied for the second-most within the NFL, and his drop charge of 10.3 % is the very best of any tight finish with no less than 30 targets. That stated, Hockenson has a pedigree of reliability along with his fingers. It’s a foul stretch, however Hockenson ought to begin gravitating again towards his norm in that division.
Regardless of these drops, Hockenson nonetheless ranks fifth amongst tight ends with no less than 30 targets in catch-in-traffic completion charge (55.6 %). On three targets in visitors, Smith had but to haul in a single cross in visitors. That’s the place Hockenson might shine in Minnesota. In these third-and-short conditions the place Cousins would usually go to Jefferson on an out route or Prepare dinner/Mattison within the flat, Hockenson might excel in operating fast hitches, drags, or stops simply past the road of scrimmage. With defenses possible keying in on Jefferson and Thielen, Hockenson ought to have more room to function, however even when he’s in visitors, he’s proven a capability to return away with the soccer.
All in all, Hockenson will (most likely) not flip into an All-Professional on par with Travis Kelce, Mark Andrews, or George Kittle in Minnesota, however for the primary time in his profession, he’s obtained a shot at reaching the playoffs and that’s all he can actually ask for.