The Vikings’ decision to effectively move down a round in the 2023 draft from the bottom of the 2nd round to the top of the 4th round, and again from (probably) the bottom of the third-round in 2024 to (probably) the top of the fifth round (assuming the Vikings win a playoff game) in exchange for TJ Hockenson indicates that they’re looking at Hockenson as a likely tight-end of the future, given he’s just 25 years old and ranks higher than any tight end on the Vikings roster in receiving metrics and overall performance.
Hockenson is a roster lock through next season under the 5th year rookie contract option given and exercised for Hockenson as a first-round pick. At $9.4 million fully guaranteed, that’s not cheap for a tight end. And assuming he works out for the Vikings, he may command at least that much in average annual salary cap in an extension. He may not command the top salaries at the position given to George Kittle and Travis Kelce ($15 and $14 million a year respectively), but he could top $10 million if he plays well. He has shown top ten receiving metrics among tight ends, so there is some precedent for Hockenson getting a high-end pay-day for a tight end down the road if he plays well.
Split Reaction to the Trade
Grades among pundits after the trade were largely split, with the Vikings’ grade on the trade ranging from A to C+ among outlets I canvassed, with the Lions’ grades a bit worse on average, mainly because compensation was viewed as ranging from adequate to not great, with some citing a lengthening of the Lions’ rebuild time.
The Athletic canvassed some league executives to evaluate the trade, and they were also split, 4-4, on the trade. They called it ‘unique’ citing a high-end player at a thin position around the league being dealt intra-division. Some liked it for the Vikings for that reason- there aren’t a lot of good tight ends out there- while others cited the compensation for Hockenson based on his tape was a bit rich and that the upcoming draft is supposedly deep at the tight end position.
The one thing about tight ends that can be overlooked is how long it takes, on average, for rookie tight ends to get up to speed in the NFL. Learning route running and blocking at the NFL level and all the assignments that go along with that can and usually does take longer to develop in tight ends. Several years in many cases. So, the Vikings acquiring a TE1 in TJ Hockenson who is already acclimated to the NFL and has put up top ten metrics has a lot of value over a potential draft pick next season who may or may not pan out in time.
Among those that didn’t like the trade for the Lions, the loss of a high-end player simply adds to the length of their rebuild. Sure they moved up in the draft but given that 70% of draft picks don’t pan out, including over half of 2nd and 3rd round picks, the trade doesn’t really get the Lions anywhere other than dumping a future salary cap hit.
Reviewing Hockenson’s 2022 Tape
Lions’ GM Brad Holmes said after the trade that the Lions’ record had nothing to do with dealing Hockenson, who was not surprised by the trade. There is truth to that, with pundits citing the Lions’ salary cap issues in the future, and not wanting to spend it on a tight end that could command north of $10 million/year in an extension and would’ve been a $9.4 million cap hit next year.
The other aspect of the trade is Hockenson’s role in the Lions’ offense.
Reviewing Hockenson’s tape this season, it’s apparent that he’s not Jared Goff’s preferred target. Part of that is scheme-related and part of it may be simply Goff preferring to target other receivers. Both instances show up on tape.
The year began for the Lions at home against the Eagles, who narrowly won that game 38-35. A key factor in that loss for the Lions was a pick-six Goff threw in targeting Hockenson. Hockenson ran an out-and-up route while Goff threw the out route, resulting in an easy INT and pick six for the Eagles. Goff said afterward it was a result of a miscommunication, although it wasn’t clear whether Hockenson or Goff was to blame. In any case, Hockenson has averaged just five targets a game from Goff, apart from week four, this season. He was looking for a larger role in the Lions offense.
Hockenson did have a monster game week four against the Seahawks (179 yards, 2 TDs, 8 receptions, 12 targets), but this was largely the result of Goff’s preferred targets- D’Andre Swift, DJ Chalk, and Amon-Ra St. Brown- being out that game. Hockenson broke a big play down the sideline for 82 yards, managing to stay inbounds when Seahawks defenders had figured he’d step out, and had a few other nice plays that showcased what he can do if given the opportunity.
But after Hockenson’s monster game against the Seahawks, he had no more than 5 targets in any of his remaining games with the Lions. Throughout the season, there were several instances of Goff targeting D’Andre Swift or a receiver instead of Hockenson, who was also open. In many cases as well, Hockenson was a 2nd or 3rd read for Goff- which he seldom got to.
As a blocker, Hockenson frequently got the job done, but was never overpowering and often a bit sloppy in his technique. He had a couple key blocks in the week one game against the Eagles that were instrumental in big gains for D’Andre Swift. Throughout the season he was often asked to cross the formation take out the opposing defensive end while the offensive line shifted the opposite way in a zone blocking run.
Interestingly, Hockenson grades significantly higher in zone runs (62.7) compared to gap runs (41.5) according to PFF. The Vikings are a predominant zone run team, while the Lions are a predominantly gap scheme team. So, while Hockenson certainly has room for improvement as a blocker, he’s mostly adequate and could see improvement in the Vikings’ run scheme.
As a pass blocker, like most receiving tight ends Hockenson wasn’t asked to pass block much- typically around 4 snaps a game. He did well in that role this season- except for the Vikings’ game when he graded an 18 according to PFF. He’s allowed a total of three pressures (2 hurries and a QB hit) on 31 pass blocking reps this season.
Hockenson uses three distinct stances when he lines up. The first is a low three-point stance, often used in run plays when he’s not in motion. The second is a wide two-point stance with his hands on his knees which he uses often prior to going in motion or on pass plays where he’s asked to chip block and then run a route. The third is a wide receiver type stance used most often on clear passing plays where he runs a route and is not asked to chip block. While not a sure-fire tell of what the play will be or what Hockenson’s assignment is, his stance in the Lions’ offense seemed to be a likely tell of his assignment, and therefore what the play will be. My guess is that will change with the Vikings, among other things.
The Value of the Tight End Position
As Vikings fans, we can be forgiven for not placing a lot of value in the tight end position. After all, we haven’t seen much for production or blocking from tight end for most of Vikings franchise history. But in recent Super Bowl history, top tight ends are as common as top quarterbacks. That may not be a coincidence.
The reason may not be immediately obvious, but there are several functions a good tight end can accomplish for an offense. These include:
- Move the chains receiver
- Make a difference run blocker
- Distraction for linebackers/safety in play-action game
- Need to be accounted for in coverage
- Occasional big play threat
A high-end tight end can be an invaluable tool in an offensive arsenal given the unique aspects of the position. The first aspect is that a tight end is typically covered by a linebacker or strong safety. Teams can adjust coverage to minimize a top wide receiver, but doing so against a top tight end leaves wide receivers with a lot of space. And so even Travis Kelce doesn’t get a lot of double coverage. For a team with Justin Jefferson getting most of the attention from opposing secondaries, a tight end is unlikely to draw additional scrutiny. And so for a tight end that can deliver against man coverage, and find the open spots in zone, he becomes a difficult receiver to cover. That makes him invaluable as a short-intermediate receiver who can move the chains when wide receivers are covered and/or pressure comes quickly.
A tight end can also be a difference-maker as a run blocker. They’re not typically expected to make the key block to spring a runner, but when they do, whether a defensive end or a linebacker, it can be a key block that results in a bigger gain. In a mid-zone run scheme like the Vikings use, the tight end can often be in a position to make that key block that allows a running back to reach the second level.
And so a tight end that can make a key block and also move the chains as a receiver, can present a real dilemma for a linebacker or strong safety in a play-action pass. They need to be wary of the tight end in run defense, but when the play becomes a pass, they need to turn around and cover the tight end who may have a jump on them. A tight end that can effective as both a blocker and receiver, and work the deception in play-action, can be a constant threat to defenses and often a difficult matchup against linebacker or safety based on size or speed/quickness and route running ability.
For defenses opposing the Vikings, there hasn’t been a lot of need to focus on defending the tight end. If anything, opposing defenses have been willing to place their focus elsewhere in stopping Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and/or Dalvin Cook, and make the Vikings beat them with Irv Smith Jr., Johnny Mundt, or CJ Ham. That’s a risk they’re willing to take.
But with a tight end like TJ Hockenson, that may be a risk they’re less willing to take, or a bigger one to take on in their game plan.
Making Good Use of a Good Tight End
TJ Hockenson may not be as good an all-purpose tight end as All-Pros Travis Kelce, George Kittle, or Mark Andrews at this point in his career, but he has the traits to be in their league and isn’t that far off. The key for Hockenson may be placement in a scheme that features him more than he was in Detroit- and has more weapons around him.
For example, Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan have incorporated Kelce and Kittle into their scheme and play design, focusing on what they do best and designing plays to get them the ball. Bill Belichick did the same with Rob Gronkowski in the Patriots dynasty era. In the hands of a good play-designer, a good all-purpose tight end is an invaluable tool and often a quarterback’s best friend. Even for elite quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady. It’s difficult to see how the Chiefs offense would be as effective without Travis Kelce, or Patrick Mahomes, talented as he is, be nearly as effective with, say, a Kyle Rudolph at tight end. In many games where the passing game is struggling for one reason or another, finding an outlet in the tight end to move the chains can help overcome obstacles elsewhere. For the Vikings, Hockenson may help them overcome their difficulties in man coverage.
In today’s NFL, where two high safety shell coverages are becoming more popular in limiting explosive passing plays- much as the Vikings’ defensive scheme aims to do- that typically leaves the tight end to be covered by a linebacker. And linebackers that can cover well are a rarity in the NFL, even as that skill set has become more coveted and smaller, more athletic linebackers have become the norm. The Buffalo Bills have two of the best coverage linebackers in the league in Matt Milano (top PFF coverage grade) and Tramaine Edwards (8th), but together they gave up 5 receptions on 5 targets for 87 yards to Travis Kelce in their week six matchup.
The hope is that Kevin O’Connell and Wes Phillips- who was previously tight ends coach in LA- can design and dial up some plays for Hockenson to be effective and get better use from his skill set than was the case in Detroit. Hockenson has shown that he can be productive when given the opportunities, but the Lions and Jared Goff have their focus elsewhere for the most part.
Getting Hockenson Up To Speed
As the Vikings give Hockenson a crash course in learning their offense, an early focus may well be in red zone offense. The Vikings could use another option in the red zone, so getting the 6’5” Hockenson (37.5” vertical jump) involved there early could give the Vikings another red zone option they’ve been lacking since they parted ways with Kyle Rudolph. Hockenson also gives red zone defenders another weapon to consider, which could also draw attention away from Cook, Jefferson, et. al. But a play-action pass to Hockenson in the end zone where only he can catch it is likely to find its way into the Vikings’ playbook sooner rather than later.
But realistic expectations for Hockenson limit his playing time to probably no more than 15-20% of offensive snaps in the first few weeks, then ramping up from there. Hopefully he can get up to 50-60% of snaps by the end of the regular season, maybe more, but it really depends on how fast he can absorb and master the offense. Time will tell.
Hockenson has 395 receiving yards so far this season with the Lions. How many will he have at the end of the regular season?
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