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T.J Hockenson is primed to ascend to an even more elite level

On the first day of November in 2022, Minnesota Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah made his best move yet at the helm. At the price of a 2023 second-round and a 2024 third-round pick, the Vikings acquired tight end T.J. Hockenson in a rare in-division from the Detroit Lions while also gaining a pair of conditional fourth-round picks.

Coming from Tight End U, Iowa, Hockenson went to the Motor City as a top-10 pick after collecting accolades of All-Big Ten honors, the John Mackey and Ozzie Newsome Awards as well as the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year Award.

Hockenson was caught in the midst of the Lions being the bottom dwellers of the NFL North but made his first Pro Bowl appearance during the 2020 season.

While the Lions started 1-6 in 2022, he pieced himself together a nice beginning part of the season making him a tradeable asset. He exploded for 179 yards and a pair of scores against the Seattle Seahawks while putting up 80 yards in a close loss to the Miami Dolphins. He also scored one against the Vikings too. But, the Lions front office felt it would be best to move on without him and it was off the Minnesota.

While learning a new system on the fly, Hockenson became an important piece in helping the Vikings achieve 13 wins for just the third time in franchise history. In his 11 weeks with Minnesota, only Travis Kelce was more productive at the position. While Hockenson clearly entered the upper echelon of tight ends, he’s just scratching the surface of his peak.

What makes Hockenson a special player

At 6-foot-5, 240-plus pounds, Hockenson does not move like a guy at his stature. He has a rare blend of speed and route running that only a handful of tight ends have in the NFL.

Here against the New York Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs, Hockenson executes a stick nod route. He sells the out route before using his athleticism to quickly get vertical upfield allowing Kirk Cousins, who’s being pressured, to hit for a sizeable gain.

Against the Giants during the regular season, the Vikings run a play-action pass sucking up the G-Men’s linebackers. Hockenson appears to be running a crosser route but completely changes his direction and creates even more separation between him and linebacker Micah McFadden for a touchdown.

When you combine his athleticism with his height, it gives the Vikings something that it hasn’t had in a long time. As Kyle Rudolph’s age increased, his speed went in the opposite direction despite being a red-zone machine. Irv Smith Jr. and Tyler Conklin were both more athletic than Rudolph but didn’t have the height advantage that makes Hockenson so dangerous.

His versatility also allows him to stay on the field in all situations. His 1,036 offensive snaps were the second most in the NFL. Only Kelce and Evan Engram lined up both out wide in the formation or in the slot during the 2022 season.

Let’s talk about the peak age of production for tight ends

Out of all skill position groups on the offensive side of the ball, the tight end position might be the most unique. They don’t always burst onto the scene as quickly as quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers do as it could take them a bit longer for them to produce at a level. But, the position doesn’t experience the current issue with running backs where teams make sure to get the most out of them during their rookie contracts as they easily decline in their ability as they age, example: Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley for small sample size.

In fact, for a receiving tight end like Hockenson, their peaks can occur from their late 20’s into their early and mid 30’s lasting longer than their running back and receiver counterparts.

Kelce recorded his first 1,000-yard season at age 27 and has topped that mark for the past seven seasons into age 33 with no signs of slowing down. Mark Andrews enjoyed his best season as a pro in 2021 at age 26 with a 1,300-yard season. George Kittle came into the league at age 24 but has been absolutely dominant since while Dallas Goedert has ascended into the top of the position. Taking a more retro perspective, Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez were highly productive into their mid-30s.

When relating to T.J Hockenson, he just turned 26 years old this July and in 2022, he ranked second among tight ends in receptions (86) and receiving yards (914). He also graded out of the 10th best tight end according to PFF, the second youngest behind Pat Freiermuth (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Chigoziem Okonkwo (Tennessee Titans).

What external factors are going to cause Hockenson to elevate?

A tight-end-loving quarterback

We don’t know what the future holds but as of now Kirk Cousins is this team’s starting quarterback and he loves his tight ends. There’s no doubt about it, an article by FiveThirtyEight found this out back in 2018 before he signed with the Vikings. Ever since he took over as a full-time starter, here are some notable season numbers from the tight ends he’s throwing to.

2015

  • Jordan Reed: 114 targets, 87 receptions, 952 yards, 11 touchdowns (All team highs)

2016

  • Jordan Reed: 66 receptions, 686 yards, six touchdowns
  • Vernon Davis: 44 receptions, 583 yards, two touchdowns

2017

  • Vernon Davis: 43 receptions, 648 yards, three touchdowns
  • Jordan Reed: 27 receptions, 211 yards, two touchdowns (In six games)

2018

  • Kyle Rudolph: 64 receptions, 634 yards, four touchdowns

2019

  • Kyle Rudolph: 39 receptions, 367 yards, six touchdowns
  • Irv Smith Jr.: 36 receptions, 311 yards, two touchdowns

2020

  • Irv Smith Jr: 30 receptions, 365 yards, 5 scores (In 13 games)
  • Kyle Rudolph: 28 receptions, 334 yards, score (In 12 games)
  • Tyler Conklin: 19 receptions, 194 yards, score

2021

  • Tyler Conklin: 61 receptions, 593 yards, three scores

2022

  • T.J Hockenson: 60 receptions, 519 yards, three scores (In 10 games)
  • Irv Smith Jr: 25 receptions, 182 yards, two scores (In eight games)
  • Johnny Mundt: 19 receptions, 140 yards, score

Once Hockenson arrived in Minnesota, he and Cousins instantly found a connection that began with a week nine victory over the Washington Commanders. He caught nine balls on nine targets for 70 yards. In a week 15 over the New York Giants, Cousins targeted Hockenson 16 times resulting in 13 receptions for 109 yards and two scores, the first mentioned above.

By the end of the regular season, Hockenson trailed K.J. Osborn by four targets and Adam Thielen by 21 despite playing in seven fewer games with the team. Multiplying his per-game stats with the Vikings times 17, it calculates to 102 receptions on 146 targets for 882 yards, only Rudolph and Steve Jordan have put up that level of production for a tight end in the history of the Vikings.

Teams are going to have to pick their poison and Hockenson isn’t the No. 1 threat

As great as Hockenson is, everyone knows that he is not the No. 1 option when the Vikings take the field on offense, and that’s a good thing. Justin Jefferson proved to be the most valuable non-quarterback offensive player in the NFL winning the OPOY and recording the sixth most receiving yards in a single season.

At the other wide receiver position, Jordan Addison is expected to be an upgrade over Adam Thielen in terms of route running and ability to gain separation with defenders which is something that Thielen has recently struggled with. Also, the idea of a guy like K.J. Osborn or Jalen Nailor taking a step forward isn’t out of the realm of possibilities either.

So with that being said, teams can’t put all their chips into focusing on stopping one player. If teams key in on stopping Hockenson, they are risking Jefferson and hopefully Addison having a feast. With the Vikings having two game-changing receivers, it allows Hockenson to attack the middle/intermediate parts of the field where there will at times less coverage.

Here against the Giants, Hockenson motions into the No. 3 receiver (closest to the offensive line). As the play develops, the attention of the safeties and the corners are focused on the deep out and in routes by both Jefferson and Thielen to prevent them from potentially gaining a first down. This leaves the middle of the field practically open for Hockenson and he’s able to outrun the defender for a third-down conversion.

When talking about the attention gravitating towards Jefferson, later in the fourth quarter, on a crucial fourth-and-two, it appears to be a screen pass set up for No. 18. The defender bites on it attacking Jefferson, allowing Hockenson to release on a wheel route and by the time the safety gets there its too late.

Continuity

The Vikings are going to be retaining the same offensive play-caller (Kevin O’Connell) and offensive coordinator (Wes Phillips) for two full back-to-back seasons since 2014-15 while the offensive line is set to return all five of its starters for the first time in forever.

For Hockenson, he won’t be learning a completely new system on the fly and he’ll have a full off-season and training camp with the team. The last time he had played in back-to-back systems was from 2019-20 where he went from a rookie to a pro-bowler. Pairing all of this with his age, ability and a quarterback that trusts him with built continuity will take Hockenson’s game to a whole new level for the foreseeable future and a big 2023 season will be in store.

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