The Skol Debate: Which Underrated Viking is Ready to Explode in 2023? 

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

If Minnesota expects to compete in the upcoming season, an underrated Viking or two will need to step up. Yes, getting surprising excellence from hitherto depth options can be the difference between a division title and purple purgatory.

Basically everyone knows that Justin Jefferson is a roster cornerstone. Similarly, players like Brian O’Neill, Danielle Hunter (please don’t trade him, Kwesi), Christian Darrisaw, Harrison Smith, and T.J. Hockenson will be shouldering a heavy burden for Minnesota. Oh, and Kirk Cousins should have a chip on his shoulder given that he’s walking into a prove-it year.

Who else is going to be leaned on to be major contributors? The debaters return to the arena to keep chasing after the truth on the matter:

  • The Purple Corner: Josh Frey
  • The Gold Corner: K. Joudry

Each debater snags an overlooked player and then proceeds to make their case. Frey leans toward an offensive option and Joudry leans toward a defender. Have an opinion? Let them know on Twitter (here and here).

Onward to the debate!

The Underrated Viking Players for 2023

KJ: Over these past several weeks, Vikings fans have been focusing on the team’s stars. Danielle Hunter is holding out, Justin Jefferson is attending as he pursues his new deal, and Kirk Cousins is waiting until next March to discuss his future employment in Minnesota. 

Spending time on these marquee players and their contracts makes an awful lot of sense, and yet the team goes beyond just the most recognizable names. To flirt with 13 wins, the Vikings will need several lesser-heralded players to rise from the doldrums of (relative) anonymity and into the conversation for breakout players. 

Josh, when you survey the roster landscape, do you see anyone who is ready to shine in 2023? Excluding the obvious stars, are there Vikings who will quickly ascend into top-tier options at their position? 

JF: Indeed, a number of young Vikings are going to need to step up if Minnesota hopes to have the same semblance of success that they enjoyed in 2022. Now that a number of the more familiar names on the roster are no longer around, there are plenty of snaps on each side of the ball that need names attached to them. 

That being said, I’m going to go with a player at a position that has essentially already been written off as belonging to someone. At the tight end position, we all expect to see T.J. Hockenson command a number of the starting snaps, which makes a ton of sense. He’s a very talented player, and in a short period of time with the team in 2022, he already proved to be one of the vital members of the offense.

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.

Especially if the Vikings expect to run more of their 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends, 2 receivers) in 2023, though, essentially committing to running the ball on a consistent basis, don’t underestimate the impact that Josh Oliver can have with the team this season. I believe there is a chance that he can emerge as one of the more important players on the offense this year and beyond, despite names like Cousins, Hockenson, and Jefferson existing alongside him. 

Before going too in-depth on my selection, though, I’ll toss the same question back in your direction. If you had to pick one player to “come out of nowhere” this season, who would your choice be?

KJ: My pick is, without question, backup safety Josh Metellus. However, the more time passes, the less overlooked he becomes. 

While chatting with Peter Schrager in a recent podcast appearance, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah named Metellus as a “core pillar” for the Vikings. Part of what made the GM’s answer so fascinating is that he didn’t hesitate when coming up with a name. Schrager asked for an “unsung” guy who is a “core pillar.” Adofo-Mensah instantly came up with the name Metellus before offering some expanded thoughts. 

Jun 15, 2021; in Eagen, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Josh Metellus (44) breaks up a pass intended for wide receiver Zach Davidson (40) during drills at OTA at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

“He’ll play some more this year,” Adofo-Mensah explained, “so I think you’ll see the stuff we that we’ve seen before that. But he was a special teams stalwart last year, team captain type […] you can feel when somebody’s teammates really love them, really appreciate them, and really want to follow them into battle. And he’s one of those guys.”

Now, my fascination with Metellus and his role in the defense predates the GM’s comments. Before getting into that, though, let’s shift things back over to you and the massive tight end. How does Josh Oliver prove he’s an excellent player in an offense that already boasts considerable skill? 

JF: Metellus is a strong candidate for this as well. I, too, considered him when this topic was brought up.

Back to Oliver, though, the first thing that jumps off the screen is his blocking ability. Last season, there was exactly one tight end that Pro Football Focus graded 70.0 or higher in both run blocking and pass blocking that played 50+ snaps. That tight end was Oliver, and not only did he play more than 50 snaps, he played more than 500 snaps in the Ravens offense during 2022. 

This is important to consider, especially due to the fact that he missed a great deal of his first two NFL seasons with injuries, playing just four games in 2019 and none in 2020 before joining the Ravens in 2021. If he had not turned a corner in recent years, there would be very little reason to believe he could stay on the field at all, let alone be an impact player.

We also have to take into account that all signs point to the Vikings employing a more balanced offensive attack, relying less on the pass than they did in 2022. Take a look at this quote from new starter Alexander Mattison on the Vikings approach heading into 2023:

“We all knew the run game was an area of improvement we needed, so coming into this year, there’s more emphasis. Being in Year 1 in this offense, it was something that throughout the process is learning new things, so that’s a year of foundation that we have, can look back on that at what we need to correct and do well, what we don’t do as well and improve. It’s definitely been a little more emphasis.”

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Jan 8, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Alexander Mattison (2) celebrates with Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith Jr. (84), back, after he scores a touchdown against the Chicago Bears during the second half at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Previously, we’ve talked about the Vikings putting more emphasis on the running game as a tool to help their defense, but it’s going to be just as important for their offense in order to keep opposing defenses guessing.

The Vikings ranked tied for 27th in rushing attempts last season, despite Dalvin Cook playing every regular season game for the first time in his career. Contrast that with their third-most passing attempts, and you have an offense that became as predictable as a poorly written rom-com by the time the season ended.

I can go on with Oliver, but I’ll toss the mic (keyboard?) back to you. Lay out the case for what you believe Kwesi sees in Metellus and his role with the Vikings defense this season.

KJ: Metellus is all about strong leadership, excellent versatility, great compete, and rugged physicality. Those attributes allow him to shine on special teams and will help him to make the jump to a regular within the Brian Flores defense. 

One of the relatively stunning parts of Minnesota’s offseason has been the relative lack of urgency to add talent at corner. Gone are Patrick Peterson, Duke Shelley, Chandon Sullivan, Cameron Dantzler, and Kris Boyd. Combined, the corner fivesome had 2,989 snaps on defense last season. The team brought in Byron Murphy, Joejuan Williams, and John Reid, a trio that had … 631 snaps on defense last season.

Doing so little at corner suggests that the team is feeling enthused about their safeties. 

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals
Nov 6, 2022; Seattle Seahawks Running wide receiver DK Metcalf (14) runs around Arizona Cardinals cornerback Byron Murphy (07) in the first half in Glendale, Arizona, USA; at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Harrison Smith is a locked-in starter for 2023. He isn’t going anywhere except for beyond the line of scrimmage so he can pile up TFLs. Otherwise, there is plenty of reason to be enthused about Lewis Cine – a 1st-round selection – and Camryn Bynum – who played every snap last year. The safeties, in short, are going to be featured prominently. 

The wild thing is that in the end, we may look at Metellus as being among the most impactful defenders from the 2023 season. The man blocked a pair of punts last year and was a consistent force as a tackler. He was elevated to team captain when Brian O’Neill was lost to injury and set a career high in defensive snaps (258). 

Even more impressive is that he had 5 PDs and an INT in limited work. For whatever it’s worth, PFF gave him an impressive 85.1 grade for his work last season. When I look at Metellus, I see a ton of untapped potential. I’m banking on Flores – a brilliant defensive mind – being the one to get the most out of the young safety. 

Let me put it to you this way: after assessing the case for each player, which one has the better shot at being named to the Pro Bowl following the season? 

JF: On first glance, Metellus may be the likelier option to land on a Pro Bowl roster first. Harrison Smith is 34, and this could be his final NFL season. Meanwhile, Hockenson is just entering the “prime years” of his athletic life, and he is expected to nab a lucrative contract extension to stay in Minnesota long-term while Oliver is stuck behind the tight end on a three-year deal.

However, as I’ve written in the past, perhaps a Hockenson extension shouldn’t be considered a foregone conclusion. It will likely be an expensive deal, and with Minnesota having so many young, talented players requiring new deals (Justin Jefferson, Christian Darrisaw, Ezra Cleveland, K.J. Osborn, Danielle Hunter), it’s very unlikely that everyone remains in purple and gold past the 2023 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

If Hockenson is the “odd man out”, I’d argue that Oliver can take on a starting tight end role, even one that requires catching passes for an offense. While he hasn’t been considered much of a pass-catcher throughout his NFL career, recording just 26 receptions over his first four NFL seasons, he played that precise role throughout college.

At San Jose State, Oliver put together 56 receptions for 709 yards and 4 touchdowns during his senior season of 2018, resulting in his third-round selection by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Here is how Lance Zierlein of described the tight end ahead of the 2019 Draft:

Above-average, mid-air athlete with plus ball skills who was forced to deal with coverages that were consistently shaded in his direction thanks to an excessive target count. Oliver’s route-running and ball-tracking talent allow him to work beyond the first level and can help NFL team’s looking to push the ball downfield. Oliver will flash as an in-line blocker at times but might need to enter the league as a TE2/3 who works from the slot until he becomes more skilled and consistent at the point of attack.

In the same profile, an AFC scout was quoted as describing him this way:

“I had him as my sleeper this summer, but he just put too much on tape to stay a sleeper. He can work in the slot but he needs to get better as a blocker so he can stay on the field on every down.”

Funny enough, it seems that everyone was convinced he’d be a great receiving tight end while struggling to stay on the field due to his blocking ability. Now, the descriptions for him appear to be the exact opposite. 

Considering Kevin O’Connell found a way to get targets to a player like Johnny Mundt in 2022, I have faith that Oliver will play a much larger role for the Vikings than simply as a sixth offensive lineman in the running game. With talent around him like Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison, something he didn’t have at San Jose State, he should have a much easier time putting up numbers as well.

What say you, Mr. Joudry? Have I convinced you to hop on the Josh Oliver hype train yet?

KJ: Let me put it this way: I’ll hop on the Oliver hype train as long as I don’t need to abandon the Metellus one. I’ll double down on the talented safety, largely because of his capacity to be a standout option in a couple phases of the game. 

In all likelihood, Metellus will remain a special teams stud even as his defensive responsibilities increase. If that occurs, then Metellus must be the favorite to snag the Pro Bowl nod simply because he could get there due to his play for Matt Daniels. 

If, however, we shrunk things down to just attending the PB due to offense or defense, then you may be onto something. Oliver’s impact will derive not just from his capacity to excel as a blocker but also as a pass catcher, as you detail. 

Oliver possesses a massive frame, as Wes Phillips recently noted in a press conference. Listed as being around 250 pounds, Oliver is actually coming in above 270 pounds. While I don’t necessarily expect the TE2 to morph into the team’s preeminent red zone option, such an occurrence wouldn’t be altogether unforeseen. 

Sep 30, 2022; Thundridge, United Kingdom; Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Wes Phillips during practice at Hanbury Manor. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Is there a world where Mr. Oliver walks away from 2023 having led the Vikings in TD receptions? Justin Jefferson is sensational and yet the only meaningful stat category where he isn’t at the very top is with touchdown catches. Catching 8 TDs is very good but not elite. Meanwhile, Hockenson has never surpassed 6 TDs in a season. Any chance Oliver ends up converting more catches into touchdowns than either the WR1 or TE1? 

If so, perhaps he garners some attention. Seeing a tight end who can absolutely wallop a defender before soaring through the air to score a TD is sure to impress voters. 

Regardless, Vikings fans should be very excited about Josh Metellus and Josh Oliver. A bit buried on the depth chart, the backup tight end and safety have a path toward surprising people around the NFL.