The Minnesota Vikings’ 31-28 win in Atlanta was euphoric for everyone in purple. Joshua Dobbs took over for the injured Jaren Hall and led the Vikings to victory despite arriving mid-week and getting no first-team reps. The Vikings suddenly had hope following all the uncertainty after losing Kirk Cousins to an Achilles tear in Green Bay. But it was a painful experience for T.J. Hockenson.
The Vikings faced third-and-eight from the Atlanta Falcons’ 38-yard line, trailing 21-13 with 4:10 left in the third quarter. Dobbs rolled to his right and threw eight yards to Hockenson. Jeff Okudah hit him immediately, driving his helmet into Hockenson’s rib cage. Hockenson immediately knew something was wrong but stayed on the field. He blocked on the touchdown Minnesota scored on that drive and caught three more passes, including two on the game-winning drive. He grabbed at his ribs after each play.
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Hockenson became a vital outlet for Dobbs. Tight ends are typically safety blankets for their quarterbacks, but that’s especially true for Dobbs. The Vikings had traded for him after he made eight starts with the Arizona Cardinals, and Dobbs was learning the offense during the Falcons game one 15-second conversation at a time. But Hockenson was playing a vital role in Minnesota’s offense before then. He had become the primary weapon on offense after Justin Jefferson suffered a hamstring injury against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 5.
Initially, Jefferson’s looked like a major issue. The Vikings offense looked lost without him at Soldier Field in Week 6. Kirk Cousins targeted Hockenson eight times, and Hockenson ended the day with six catches for 50 yards. He had two drops in crucial situations, but Minnesota snuck out of Chicago with a 19-13 win. On Monday night, the Vikings will play the Chicago Bears in Minneapolis, a full-circle moment for Hockenson. Jefferson might play, but he’s a game-time decision. Regardless, we have seen six games with Hockenson as Minnesota’s best pass-catcher and can glean some information about what he offers as a primary target.
In six games without Jefferson, Minnesota’s quarterbacks have targeted Hockenson 63 times. He has 43 receptions for 482 yards and two touchdowns. That means he’s averaged 7.5 receptions on 10.5 targets for 80.3 yards and 0.3 touchdowns per game. Spread those averages across a 17-game season, and he’d have 128 receptions on 178 targets for 1,366 yards and six touchdowns. For comparison, Hockenson had 30 receptions on 39 targets for 254 yards and two touchdowns in the first five weeks without Jefferson. That averages out to 6.0 receptions on 7.8 targets for 50.8 yards and 0.4 touchdowns, or 102 receptions on 133 targets for 864 yards and seven touchdowns across a 17-game season.
The Vikings have leaned on Hockenson more without Jefferson, and he’s been productive. He dropped two crucial 50/50 balls in Chicago and couldn’t hold on to two balls after Justin Simmons hits late in Denver last week. But Hockenson has largely stepped up as Minnesota’s primary offensive weapon in Jefferson’s absence. He’s been a vital outlet for Dobbs, who hasn’t connected with Justin Addison. Dobbs is also more effective using his feet to create time and is more comfortable making short passes once the receiver has created separation than taking shots down the field. Therefore, Hockenson is a more natural target for him.
Hockenson signed a four-year, $68.5 million extension in the offseason, which made him the league’s highest-paid tight end. Hockenson referenced the brotherhood among the position when signing the deal, suggesting that he was trying to reset the market so the next star tight end could make more money. Despite growing up in an Iowa State household in Chariton, Ia., Hockenson and his brothers attended the University of Iowa, which bills itself as “Tight End U.” In the offseason, he works out with a group of tight ends in Nashville, where he also caught passes from Dobbs before the Vikings traded for him this year.
But with that contract comes higher expectations. Hockenson has stepped his game up with Jefferson out, but he cannot carry a team like Jefferson has since Minnesota drafted him. Perhaps that’s an unfair expectation, given he’s a tight end, not a receiver. Similarly, it’s probably unfair to expect him to reel everything in like Jefferson does. Regardless, Hockenson has helped keep the offense afloat without Cousins and Jefferson. He’s provided Dobbs with an outlet while he learns the offense while nursing a painful rib injury. That alone should justify the contract extension.