The Vikings Should Have Zero Regrets with the T.J. Hockenson Trade, but the Detroit Lions are Looking Pretty Smart

Syndication: Detroit Free Press
David Rodriguez Munoz / USA TODAY NETWORK

One thing feels certain: the Detroit Lions don’t have any regrets about trading away T.J. Hockenson.

Pulling off the swap meant trading away a 2nd and a 3rd in exchange for Hockenson and then a pair of 4ths. Detroit was tumbling down the standings at the time, seemingly willing to embrace a tank for the remainder of the season while recouping precious draft capital. Plus, Lions GM Brad Holmes — who has made some brilliant decisions in recent years — could avoid needing to extend the tight end for major money, giving Detroit some greater financial flexibility moving forward.

Since the deal took place, things have looked like a win/win. The Lions got better picks and cap space. The Vikings got a TE1 to take the heat off of Justin Jefferson and to function as a great option for whoever has been under center. Seeing Sam LaPorta achieve so much success in 2023, though, may be prompting some Minnesotans to question the move.

Were the Lions playing chess while the Vikings were playing checkers?

T.J. Hockenson and Second Guessing the Trade

Think back to a deal that worked out wonderfully for Minnesota: the Stefon Diggs trade with the Buffalo Bills.

Buffalo agreed to take on Minnesota’s disgruntled receiver. Doing so gave their young quarterback — Josh Allen — a true WR1. The cost was the 22nd pick, 155th pick, and 201st pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. In 2021, the Vikings also picked up the 134th pick. Buffalo, in turn, got Diggs and then the 239th pick in the 2020 Draft.

Stefon Diggs
Nov 13, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs warms up before a game against the Minnesota Vikings at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Diggs has since been offering excellent play for pretty meaty pay. Meanwhile, Justin Jefferson has been working through the first four years of his rookie deal.

He was chosen with the pick that Minnesota snagged from the Bills and has proven to be the superior player. Offering better play for less pay while being much younger (Jefferson is 24, Diggs is 30) suggests that the Vikings did very well in the swap even if Bills fans shouldn’t be too upset about how things worked out.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions
Jan 7, 2024; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Jordan Addison (3) catches a pass for a touchdown and celebrates with wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) during second half of the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports

Is something similar going on with the Hockenson trade?

Admittedly, things aren’t quite so tidy since it’s not like the Lions used the Vikings’ draft pick to get LaPorta, their new TE1. Even still, it’s hard not to be impressed by how the Lions have managed their resources.

Realizing that extending Hockenson may not work out, the Lions decided to do business on the trade market. The Lions snagged the 55th pick in 2023 and the 73rd pick in 2024. The open spot at TE1 helped prompt Detroit’s decision to sink the 34th pick in the 2023 Draft into LaPorta, who is younger and cheaper than Hockenson. Plus, he was just named a second-team All Pro in his debut NFL season, an honor that has eluded Hockenson in his five-year NFL career.

Compare the two side-by-side for the past season:

Player (Age)CatchesYards TDsYPC AverageGames PlayedSnaps
T.J. Hockenson (26)95960510.115790
Sam LaPorta (23)868891010.317981

Of course, the Vikings also snagged the 119th pick in 2023 and 130th pick in 2024 as a result of the trade, but they’ve also had to forfeit some cap flexibility to retain their new tight end. In 2024, Hockenson will enter into Year 1 of of the 4-year, $66 million extension he agreed to during the summer.

In 2024, LaPorta will carry a $2,151,363 cap charge; Hockenson will carry a $14,041,176 cap charge. The season after makes the discrepancy even more pronounced, with Detroit’s TE1 scheduled for a $2,581,636 cap hit while Hockenson is scheduled for a $15,100,000 cap hit.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings
Nov 27, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings tight end T.J. Hockenson (87) celebrates his touchdown against the Chicago Bears in the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

As a team, the Lions look to be a clear step ahead of the Vikings, largely due to being much better at drafting and developing in recent seasons. Since 2021, the Lions have drafted Penei Sewell, Alim McNeil, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Aidan Hutchinson, Malcolm Rodriguez, Jahmyr Gibbs, Jack Campbell, Sam LaPorta, and Brian Branch (among other impact players).

If Jameson Williams finds a way of living up to his potential, the NFC North is going to be in trouble.

The Vikings’ draft haul pales in comparison, though the additions of Christian Darrisaw, Camryn Bynum, Akayleb Evans, Ty Chandler, Jordan Addison, and Mekhi Blackmon point toward varying degrees of promise and upside. Oh, and snagging Ivan Pace and NaJee Thompson as UDFAs certainly helps.

Nov 12, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Jordan Hicks (58) and linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. (40) and linebacker Nick Vigil (right) gather before the game against the New Orleans Saints at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Insisting that the T.J. Hockenson trade didn’t work out for Minnesota would be misguided. True, the injury is discouraging, but that’s not on Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and nor is it on Hockenson; the situation is unfortunate, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. And, to be sure, the hope and plan is for the tight end to get back to full health and contributing at an elite level at some point in 2024.

While Minnesota should be pleased about grafting one of the NFL’s top-five tight ends onto its roster, Detroit should be even more pleased with how things have worked out for them. The trade, in isolation, looks like a win/win, but the broader context of Detroit’s superior drafting and overall roster makes things appear rosier in The Motor City.

The Lions will continue their playoff journey on Sunday, January 21st when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Meanwhile, Minnesota will be looking to get healthy as they ready themselves for the GM’s “big offseason.”

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

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.