EAGAN, Minn. — Vikings tight ends consistently produced for the team in 2023.
From T.J. Hockenson's historic season to practice squad elevation Nick Muse recording his first career catch, the position impacted the offense positively at multiple points.
Hockenson, Johnny Mundt, Josh Oliver and Muse contributed as sound run blockers and focal points for Head Coach Kevin O'Connell's passing offense. Led by Hockenson, these quarterback friendly outlets challenged defenses, set career totals and broke franchise records.
Before suffering a season-ending ACL injury in Week 16, Hockenson ranked second among tight ends in catches (95), third in receiving yards (960), and second in yards per game (64.0). He emerged as O'Connell's most consistent matchup-winner and offensive threat in a season where quarterback Kirk Cousins and star receiver Justin Jefferson missed a combined 16 games.
Without Hockenson, Oliver, Mundt, and Muse all took on increased work. Mundt caught his season-long 32-yard pass in the finale at Detroit, and Oliver opened Minnesota's home game against Detroit with a 33-yarder.
The Vikings offense deployed two-plus tight ends on 27.8 percent of snaps in 2023.
View the best photos of Vikings TE T.J. Hockenson, Josh Oliver, Johnny Mundt, and Nick Muse during the 2023 season.
960 – a career-high receiving total for Hockenson despite missing 10 quarters of play with an ACL injury
Entering Week 16, he was on pace for 1,095 yards, which would have been the most in the NFL by a tight end in 2023 (49ers tight end George Kittle led with 1,020 yards).
95 – catches for Hockenson, also a career high.
Hockenson set broke the Vikings all-time single-season catches record by a tight end, passing Kyle Rudolph's 83 catches in 2016.
33.7 – percent of targets accounted for by Hockenson prior to suffering his season-ending injury
The Highest High
Hockenson made NFL history in Week 10 against the Saints.
According to OptaSTATS, the Vikings star became the first tight end in NFL history to record 10-plus catches for at least 125 yards and one touchdown in a single half of a game.
Hockenson's score capped a first-half offensive explosion led by quarterback Joshua Dobbs in his first Vikings start.
Already leading by two touchdowns, Minnesota started a 2-minute drive from its 24. The Vikings had scored on three of their first four possessions but weren't done. On the seventh play, Dobbs delivered a 28-yard dart to Hockenson that split two Saints defensive backs at the goal line. Hockenson corralled Dobbs' pass, shielding the ball with his back as he fell into the end zone.
Fans at U.S. Bank Stadium celebrated as Hockenson emphatically spiked the ball. The Vikings entered halftime with a 24-3 lead, marking the first time the team had scored 24 points through the first two quarters since 2019.
The play embodied Hockenson's versatile and gritty season. He aligned in the slot on the scoring snap and ran a route usually reserved for All-Pro receiver Justin Jefferson. But Jefferson was amid a seven-game absence due to a hamstring injury. The Vikings beat the Saints 27-19 and notched a fifth consecutive victory, improving to 6-4 following an 0-3 start.
During the winning streak, Hockenson led all NFL tight ends in targets per game (11.2), receptions per game (8.2), and receiving first downs per game (4.8) – all while enduring a nagging rib injury.
The Lowest Low
A devastating hit to Hockenson's knee by Lions safety Kerby Joseph abruptly ended his season.
The injury occurred on the Vikings second offensive play of the third quarter. Hockenson extended for a 24-yard catch, but his knee absorbed the crown of Joseph's helmet. Hockenson jogged off the field, initially a sign he'd avoided a severe injury. But he was ruled out shortly after.
Following the loss, the team announced that Hockenson suffered a torn ACL and MCL. It was a costly night for Minnesota as starting outside linebacker D.J. Wonnum suffered a torn left quadriceps.
"Crushed for both of those guys. Two of our most impactful players. Leaders on our team. Kind of set the standard of what we want as Minnesota Vikings in every aspect of who they are as men and teammates and players on the grass," O'Connell said.
2 Pressing Questions for 2024
- Hockenson's road to recovery
Hockenson's late-season injury could put the start of his 2024 season into question. He'll require surgery, and multiple knee ligament tears typically carry a nine-to-12-month recovery timeline.
He is expected to fully recover, but training camp is scheduled to begin in late July. Hockenson may need additional time to completely heal and return to playing shape.
The nature of Hockenson's injury recently came under scrutiny after Joseph delivered a near-identical hit to Rams tight end Tyler Higbee in Sunday's Wild Card game at Detroit. On Monday, the Rams confirmed Higbee tore his ACL.
"It was a very, very unfortunate play," O'Connell said. "We've done a nice job [in the NFL] of helping take out some of those head and neck area hits to the defenseless players, [but] some of those low hits can be incredibly catastrophic for guys. It was awful to see that happen."
- Increased opportunity for Backup Tight Ends
Oliver should log plenty of first-team opportunities once the Vikings reconvene at TCO Performance Center to being their offseason workout program in April. The same could be true for Mundt and Muse, but both are set to be free agents.
The Vikings signed Oliver early in free agency in 2023 after bringing Mundt to Minnesota from Los Angeles in 2022. Mundt's familiarity with the system from his time with O'Connell and Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips at the Rams helped Vikings teammates learn it. Muse was initially added as a seventh-round pick in 2022.
Minnesota could look to re-sign one or both of those players ahead of the draft, opt for a different free agent or utilize a draft pick this year to bolster depth at the position.