What the Josh Oliver signing means for the Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings have agreed to terms with a former Baltimore Raven.
No, they didn’t sign Lamar Jackson. Instead, they’ve agreed to a deal with a tight end. According to Mike Garafolo of the NFL Network, the Vikings are set to sign tight end Josh Oliver to a three-year contract. The contract is worth $21 million, with $10.75 million guaranteed. The deal can not be signed officially until Wednesday.
The #Vikings have agreed to terms with TE Josh Oliver on a three-year, $21 million deal, source says. He gets $10.75 million guaranteed and has incentives that can take the deal up to $24 million. One of the best blocking tight ends in the league.
— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) March 13, 2023
Oliver, who turns 26 in eight days, is a former third-round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars later traded Oliver to the Ravens for a conditional seventh-round pick. In Baltimore, Oliver was a backup tight end behind Mark Andrews.
Here’s how he fits into the Vikings’ offense.
A Brief History on tight end contracts in free agency
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Josh Oliver is the first tight end to agree to terms during the NFL’s legal tampering period, so there isn’t much precedent from this season.
According to Spotrac, 34 tight ends were signed during last year’s off-season. The highest-paid tight end from that list was CJ Uzomah, who went from the Cincinnati Bengals to the New York Jets. Uzomah signed a three-year contract worth $24 million and $15 million guaranteed.
The Jets also signed former Vikings tight end Tyler Conklin last season to a three-year deal worth just north of $20 million and $10 million guaranteed.
In some ways, the Vikings copied and pasted the Conklin contract to Josh Oliver. They’ll make a similar amount of “total” money over the three seasons and have about the same amount of guaranteed money over the contract.
Last season, Conklin had a cap hit of $3.623 million, but that number will only increase as the contract ages. Conklin’s cap hit balloons up to $6 million next season before reaching the $9 million mark in 2024.
However, it’s unlikely that Conklin makes it to the final year of the contract. According to OverTheCap, the Jets can designate Conklin as a post-June 1st cut and save $6.750 million against the cap.
Keep an eye on how the contract is structured for Oliver. There’s a good chance that this becomes a de-facto two-year contract for the Vikings, with a limited amount of dead cap if he is released in the year of the contract. There’s also a good chance that the cap hit is limited in the first two seasons like it was for Conklin.
What does Oliver offer?
Baltimore Ravens At Cincinnati Bengals Afc Wild Card Jan 15 110
Let’s get into the scouting report, shall we?
Josh Oliver’s development has been a unique one. Oliver was not a great blocker at San Jose State and looked to be more of an athletic receiving target in the NFL.
At the NFL Combine, Oliver ran a 4.63-second 40-yard dash, which places him in the 83rd percentile. With that, it looked like Oliver would best fit as a seam breaker tight end to help extend the field vertically.
Now, take all that information and throw it away.
After moving to the Baltimore Ravens, Oliver became one of the best run-blocking tight ends in the NFL. Last season, Oliver ranked second in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus’ run-blocking grade. Just ahead of him was Ravens teammate Isaiah likely. What is important about these scores is that they were earned mostly inline and not split out as a receiver.
Oliver made his money by being a good run blocker. That’s why the Ravens played him a lot. It’s also why the Vikings likely prioritized Oliver on the first day of free agency.
Plenty of clips showcase Oliver’s ability to change the game as a run blocker, including this one from the Ravens’ game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
According to @PFF, Josh Oliver was the 2nd best run blocking TE in all of football in 2022. pic.twitter.com/obsVGgh37k
— vikesinsider (@vikesinsider) March 13, 2023
As a receiver, Oliver has been limited. He has just 24 catches over his career, and this season he had a career-high 14. Oliver did most of his receiving work between the numbers, with most of that in the short game.
So far, there isn’t much to indicate that Oliver can develop a diverse route tree, but a new system could do the trick. There was a reason to believe he could test defenses vertically in college, but that was a few years ago.
How does Oliver fit the Vikings
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Let’s get this out of the way: you don’t sign Oliver to that kind of contract if you don’t plan on playing him.
That fact, though, creates a problem for the Vikings. The Vikings traded for TJ Hockenson at the deadline, and it’s hard to imagine a situation where they don’t extend him. It’s also hard to imagine a situation where Hockenson doesn’t play most of the team’s snaps on offense.
That likely signals a shift to two-tight end sets for Kevin O’Connell. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Vikings ran 12 personnel about 12% of the time. That number is likely due to personnel, with the Vikings having three wide receivers worth playing. With Adam Thielen released, that opens up the potential shift in the offensive philosophy.
With their current roster setup, Justin Jefferson and KJ Osborn would be your two wide receivers, while Josh Oliver and TJ Hockenson lineup as tight ends. This would force defenses into more base looks, keeping a defensive back off the field. With Hockenson’s receiving ability, look for him to benefit from that potential shift.
Oliver’s inclusion in the offense would also help the running game. At times, the Vikings’ running game collapsed because of the blocking on the outside. Tight ends play a critical role in blocking for a Shanahan or McVay offense, and the Vikings didn’t have the “dudes” to run as effectively as they could. With Oliver’s blocking prowess, this is where he’ll make his money.
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