EAGAN, Minn. — Players are less than two weeks away from reporting for 2023 Vikings Training Camp presented by Omni Viking Lakes Hotel.
The first public practice is scheduled for Saturday, July 29, as part of Back Together Weekend, which is presented by The Salvation Army.
Returning starters: T.J. Hockenson (seven games) and Johnny Mundt (12 games)
Also on the roster: (listed alphabetically by last name): Nick Muse, Josh Oliver and Ben Sims
Key departure: Irv Smith, Jr.
2022 recap: An injury again shortened Smith's season, capping the 2019 second-round pick's time with Minnesota at 37 games and 15 starts. When Smith was heading to Injured Reserve, the Vikings were able to execute a rare, in-season trade with a division foe to bring Hockenson to Minnesota, and he responded immediately. Hockenson totaled 60 catches for 519 yards and three scores for the Vikings on the way to his second career Pro Bowl. Mundt brought familiarity with Head Coach Kevin O'Connell's system and helped teach teammates. Generally more of a blocker, Mundt added 19 catches for 140 yards on 21 targets and recorded his first career touchdown. Ben Ellefson added three catches for 26 yards before an injury stopped his season. Ellefson retired this offseason and is beginning a hybrid role that will include some coaching, some scouting and some player development opportunities with the Vikings.
Added dimension: Oliver, who joined the team in free agency, is known more for his blocking at the NFL level because of his recent experience in the Ravens offense, but he was viewed as more of a pass catcher coming out of college. The Vikings plan to capitalize on Oliver's completeness and believe his addition will allow them to deploy multiple types of personnel to try to create favorable matchups.
View photos of the top 10 rushing leaders of all-time for the Vikings.
3 Key Questions for Vikings Tight Ends
1. What's a full season for Hockenson look like?
Hockenson's ability to learn the system on the fly and contribute significantly was mentioned, but it might not have been as fully appreciated as it should have been.
His 60 receptions in just 10 games rank eighth in a season by a Vikings tight end. Everyone with more catches played at least 14 games, and all but one played 16 or more.
Kyle Rudolph set the single-season record for receptions by a Vikings tight end with 83 on 132 targets in 2016.
Hockenson was targeted 86 times, which if expanded to a 17-game season would be roughly 146 targets.
While his final targets number in 2023 might not be that high because of myriad factors, there's a good chance Hockenson can take a run at the receptions record.
One other question regarding Hockenson is whether his yards per reception will increase this season with Minnesota. He came to the Vikings averaging 15.2 yards per reception through the first part of 2022, but then wound up with 8.7 yards per reception for Minnesota, which is well below the 11.1 he averaged in 47 career games with Detroit.
Hockenson's catch percentage did increase from 60.5 through seven games with the Lions last season to 69.8 with the Vikings.
Will the Vikings send Hockenson on some deeper routes, or will he be more of a reliable safety valve in 2023?
2. How will Oliver impact the team?
The answer is probably multiple ways, but for the sake of brevity, we'll say as a blocker and receiver.
Oliver's prowess as a blocker is something he's worked hard on since entering the NFL and has been a big benefit to a run-first Ravens offense that also features tight end Mark Andrews in the passing game.
The Vikings haven't been shy about their desire to reduce the number of runs that gained 2 or fewer yards last season because they were so detrimental to the offense staying on the field (which also helps the defense). Second-and-5-or-6 looks a lot different to a play caller than second-and-8-or-worse.
Being better in the run game can open things up in the passing game, and if the Vikings go with a heavy alignment, it could prompt defenses to stay in their base coverage and allow Minnesota to scheme some preferred matchups.
Even though Oliver has totaled 26 receptions for 230 yards and two touchdowns with Jacksonville and Baltimore since 2019, he looked really good during Minnesota's offseason program on routes down the field and is a giant target in the red zone.
3. Will the Vikings try to capitalize on more versatility at the position?
According to Next Gen Stats, the 2022 Vikings used 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three receivers) on 73.5 percent of their offensive plays.
Minnesota used 12 (one RB, two TE, two WR) on 11.8 percent, 21 (two RB — including FB C.J. Ham, one TE, two WR) on 9.2 percent and 22 (two RB, two TE, one WR) on 4.5 percent of plays last season.
The combination of Hockenson, Oliver and Mundt could enable the Vikings to go with two tight ends a little more often if they want, or even utilize all three on certain plays.