The Vikings entered this season coming off back-to-back non-playoff years and with a new general manager and head coach. This created unknowns about how GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell would operate.
Would they be aggressive or hang back, especially in their first season, and let things play out? That question was answered a few hours before the NFL trade deadline on Tuesday with the acquisition of T.J. Hockenson from NFC North rival Detroit.
The move, which sent a 2023 second- and 2024 third-round pick to the Lions and returned a 2023 fourth- and 2024 conditional fourth-round pick to Minnesota, brings a 6-5, 248-pound pass-catching tight end to the Vikings. The move shows the Vikings’ intention of attempting to capitalize on a 6-1 start that has provided the first-place team with a comfortable cushion in the NFC North.
The fact that outside of Philadelphia (7-0) there is no team in the conference that is clearly better than the Vikings also probably played a role.
The Vikings had spent the past week working the phones at TCO Performance Center to discuss various deals. The team’s depth needs included defensive tackle, defensive end, cornerback, tight end and wide receiver.
That last position is interesting because with veteran Adam Thielen clearly struggling with a leg injury, his speed has been impacted but his hands have not. Ideally, the Vikings could have added another deep threat to open up opportunities for Pro Bowl wide receiver Justin Jefferson but that didn’t happen.
The Vikings’ decision to pursue a tight end was made easier after Irv Smith Jr., suffered a high ankle sprain in Sunday’s victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Smith was placed on injured reserve Tuesday, shortly after the Hockenson trade was made. He reportedly is expected to miss eight-to-10 weeks.
Smith also hadn’t lived up to the expectations many had for him after the Vikings drafted him in the second round in 2019. Smith missed all of last season because of a knee injury suffered in an exhibition game at Kansas City, and had 22 catches (33 targets) for 168 yards and two touchdowns in seven games this season. He also dropped what likely would have been a touchdown in the Vikings’ lone loss of the season in Week 2 against Philadelphia.
Smith’s absence left the Vikings with only veteran Johnny Mundt at tight end. Ben Ellefson, who is more of a blocking tight end, is on IR because of a groin injury. Jacob Hollister was on the roster Sunday but that was because of an elevation from the practice squad.
Hockenson, the eighth overall pick by the Lions in 2019 out of Iowa, has 26 catches (43 targets) for 395 yards and three touchdowns in seven games. Smith was averaging 7.6 yards per reception this season, while Hockenson is at 15.2 yards. Hockenson’s best performance came on Oct. 2 against Seattle when he caught eight passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns in a loss for the Lions (1-6). He had three receptions for 18 yards and a touchdown in the Lions’ loss on Sept. 25 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Hockenson, who was named to the Pro Bowl in his second NFL season after catching 67 passes for 723 yards and six touchdowns, trails only Christian McCaffrey in yards after the catch over expected this season, according to Next Gen Stats. McCaffrey is at plus-163 and Hockenson at plus-117. That will be a major boost to the Vikings, whose tight ends as a group ranked 30th in YAC over expected (minus-13) through the first eight weeks.
The only concern might be that Hockenson played in every game only once in his first three seasons and has dealt with a knee issue of late.
The 25-year-old is only a year older than Smith, and his presence should enable O’Connell to call more passing plays that involve the tight end. O’Connell also almost certainly will use Hockenson as a way to increase the “illusion of complexity” for his offense and quarterback Kirk Cousins.
As for Adofo-Mensah, the trade is a signal from the front office that it believes in this roster and the opportunity it has to not only get into the playoffs but make a run. It also provides the first sign that Adofo-Mensah is willing to go for it when he sees an opportunity.
It’s now up to O’Connell and his players to reward that faith.