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Lunchbreak: T.J. Hockenson can Lead Young Corps of Vikings Tight Ends

When the Vikings first entered the 2022 season, one of their positions that didn't have a ton of experience with quarterback Kirk Cousins was at tight end.

Irv Smith, Jr., had the most experience, as the veteran was gearing up for his fourth season with Minnesota and first since 2020 after missing all of 2021 with a knee injury. Ben Ellefson had played just five games with the Vikings after joining the team in 2021, and Johnny Mundt (free agency) and Nick Muse (seventh-round draft pick in 2022) had yet to play a snap with Cousins and Minnesota.

Over the course of the season, the Vikings depth at tight end diminished. Smith played seven games and recorded 22 receptions for 168 yards and a pair of touchdowns before being sidelined on Oct. 30 with an ankle injury. Ellefson appeared in four games and only registered three catches for 26 yards before suffering a groin injury in early October, joining Smith on Injured Reserve.

Mundt has played in 13 of the team's 15 games, catching 19 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown, and Muse has thus far contributed only on special teams.

The Vikings signed Jacob Hollister in late September, but he only played in one game before he joined Las Vegas in November. Minnesota also signed James O'Shaughnessy on Nov. 14 to its practice squad.

In need of a move at the position, Minnesota made a splash right before the trade deadline on Nov. 1. The Vikings landed T.J. Hockenson as well as a fourth-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft and a conditional pick in 2024 from Detroit in exchange for a 2023 second-round pick and a third-round pick in 2024.

Kevin Seifert of ESPN analyzed Hockenson's production since the trade and said the midseason move by Minnesota could be one that pays dividends in the long term for the Vikings. Seifert wrote:

Hockenson's immediate performance in [Head Coach Kevin] O'Connell's scheme has been eye-opening. He established an instant connection with Cousins, capitalized on almost all of the available schematic opportunities and became the NFL's most productive tight end — aside from Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce — since arriving in time for the Vikings Week 9 game at Washington.

Since Week 9, Hockenson has hauled in more catches (52) and played more snaps (490) than any other current tight end in the NFL. He's also racked up the second-highest receiving yards (444) and first downs (23) by a tight end in that stretch, just behind Kelce.

On third downs, Hockenson leads his position in receptions (17), yards (187) and converted first downs (10). During the 2-minute drill, Hockenson has totaled 58 yards from scrimmage (second-most on the team) and caught three red zone touchdowns, including two against the Giants last Saturday.

Hockenson also set a franchise record for catches in a game by a tight end with a career-high 13 against the Giants and recorded his third career 100-yard receiving game (109 yards) and first with Minnesota.

"It really has been a whirlwind," Hockenson said. "I don't think I'm going to really recognize where I'm at and what I've been doing and what this team is doing until after the season."

Seifert said with opposing defenses turning their attention toward Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson downfield, it has allowed Hockenson to take advantage in the short range, as his average target with Minnesota is 7.7 yards.

"The tight end position gets to work against some premier matchups sometimes," O'Connell said, "but also in some opened-up space from maybe the top shelf being taken or your 'X' receiver taking so much responsibility of the defense and understanding where he is, whether you call it a 'safety valve' or you just look at the progression that Kirk is going through and understanding that he's going to have some voids for T.J."

Seifert added while Hockenson's current average catch radius (8.4 yards) in the past nine games is far from the averages of Kelce (14.1) and San Francisco's George Kittle (16.4) during that time frame, his presence has been felt immediately by the Vikings offense.

"I still don't think he gets enough credit for learning the whole playbook in two days when he got here," right tackle Brian O'Neill said. "Now he's starting to settle in and get reps of things that he's going to run in the games in practice."

Seifert noted Cousins has relied on his tight ends throughout his career, ranking fourth in the NFL in targets (810) and touchdowns (49) to the position prior to this season.

The Vikings depth at tight end will get even stronger going into the postseason, as Smith was designated to return to practice on Wednesday. And with all its current tight ends at age 30 or below (O'Shaughnessy, 30; Mundt, 28; Ellefson, 26; Hockenson, 25; Muse, 24; Smith, 24), Minnesota's future at the position is bright.

Vikings have rare opportunity Sunday in Green Bay

Minnesota has already secured its spot in this year's playoffs by winning the NFC North title, but on Sunday in Green Bay, the Vikings have a chance to do something pretty rare.

Joe Nelson of Sports Illustrated wrote that Minnesota has only hurt Green Bay's chances of making the playoffs a few times in the past few decades.

In the 30 years of having Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers from 1992 to 2022, the Packers have missed the playoffs just eight times.

The Vikings can take credit for keeping the Packers out of the playoffs in three of those eight seasons, and they can do again with a win at Lambeau Field.

A Minnesota win on Sunday, along with a Detroit victory at home against Chicago, will eliminate Green Bay from playoff contention. The Vikings and Packers will know the Lions-Bears result prior to their kickoff at 3:25 p.m. (CT).

The Vikings helped keep the Packers from making the playoffs in 1992, 1999 and 2017.

In 1992, Minnesota beat Green Bay 27-7 in Week 17, and the Packers ended the season 9-7 and fell in the tiebreaker to Washington for the final Wild Card slot.

In 1999, the Vikings edged the Packers 24-20 in Week 15, and Green Bay split its final two games and lost tiebreakers to Detroit and Dallas.

In 2017, Green Bay began the season at 4-1 before Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone against the Vikings. The Packers finished the season 7-9.