A Hint that the Vikings’ Offense Will be Adjusting its Strategy

A team doesn’t spend top dollar on a pair of tight ends unless the plan was to play the pair of tight ends. Indeed, the Vikings’ offense will be incorporating both T.J. Hockenson and Josh Oliver; they’ll join forces to (hopefully) give the Vikings a dynamic duo.

Part of the appeal of leaning into these two players is that it allows Minnesota to be unpredictable. Hockenson is 6’5”, 248 pounds and Oliver is a near identical 6’5”, 249 pounds. In other words, they each possess tremendous size and length. Both will be difficult for DBs to matchup with in coverage. Both have the size to make their presence felt as blockers.

What Could a T.J. Hockenson Contract Extension Look Like?
Feb 4, 2023; Paradise, NV, USA; NFC tight end T.J. Hockenson of the Minnesota Vikings (87) during practice at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.

Each is likely to have a primary role. Hockensen will do most of the pass catching, Oliver will do most of the blocking.

Nevertheless, their roles are by definition versatile. When they’re on the field, the Vikings can use their size to clear run lanes or their size to box out an overmatched DB on a jump ball. Hockenson can burn it down the seam as Oliver sticks behind to help corral a DE; Oliver can work a crossing route as Hockenson chips a pass rusher on the way to the flats.

Kevin O’Connell is going to have options, which is what a head coach wants.

It didn’t take long for Vikings Twitter to start putting the pieces together for the implications of the deal. Ben Leber, who played linebacker for Minnesota from 2006-2010, noted that the team would likely be leaning on more 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs):

There were similar comments coming from SI’s Will Ragatz, Vikings Wire’s Tyler Forness, and PurplePTSD’s Josh Frey had this to say:

“Josh Oliver wasn’t necessarily on my bingo card for the Vikings, but Minnesota has had some trouble finding consistent blocking ability at the tight end position for awhile. As long as they stay healthy, the duo of Hockenson and Oliver should change that.”

Frey goes on in his piece discussing the move, drawing attention to young TE’s successes: “With Baltimore, he blossomed into one of the better blocking tight ends in the entire NFL and played 31 games between 2021 and 2022 while also making 10 starts in the time. In two seasons with the Ravens, he caught 25 passes for 215 yards and a pair of touchdowns. 14 receptions, 149 yards, and both TDs came during the 2022 season.”

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Jacksonville Jaguars
Nov 27, 2022; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Baltimore Ravens tight end Josh Oliver (84) spikes the ball after scoring a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the fourth quarter at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

He partnered with Mark Andrews in Baltimore, so Oliver knows what’s it’s like to play with a top-tier receiving option at the other TE spot.

Last season, Hockenson had 614 snaps inline, 286 in the slot, and 136 out wide. Oliver, for his part, had 440 inline, 71 in the slot, 41 out wide, 8 in the backfield, and 1 along the offensive line. Obviously, the new addition is coming from a different offense, so we can’t draw too many firm conclusions from these numbers, but the hint is that we’ll see plenty of Hockenson in the slot and out wide. On occasion, Oliver will also venture out there, but there’s a decent chance he’s a consistent blocking buddy for the OTs.

Leaning on 12 personnel may also have another overlooked benefit: controlling the clock. In 2022, the Vikings’ defense performed horribly, averaging 25.1 points against per game. Playing defense becomes considerably easier when one’s own offense is churning out first downs.

Mar 1, 2023; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell speaks to the press at the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports.

An offensive strategy that leans into the bigger bodies of multiple tight ends is one that lends itself well to staying on the field by consistently picking up first downs. To be sure, the Vikings will still challenge deep, but 12 personnel seems more appropriate for attacking the short and intermediate areas of the field. We’ll see if Kevin O’Connell and the Vikings agree.

Therein lies the beauty, folks: we can be reasonably certain that Oliver’s addition means we’re going to see him on the field plenty with Hockenson. However, the manner in which O’Connell deploys those tight ends remains a mystery (even if we have some educated guesses).

The offensive strategy is continuing to evolve. Ideally, that means we’ll see an even more potent attack once September arrives.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference, PFF, and Over the Cap helped with this piece.