EAGAN, Minn. -- As they have gotten to know each other this year, the Minnesota Vikings' first-year brain trust -- general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O'Connell -- has held regular discussions about all aspects of the operation. At one point this fall, the conversation turned to tight ends. O'Connell loved the position so much that Adofo-Mensah felt compelled to initiate an independent film study to see what he was missing.
One of the players Adofo-Mensah examined was T.J. Hockenson, then of the Detroit Lions. O'Connell had spoken generally about the ways a dynamic tight end could produce in his scheme, particularly with defenses chasing receiver Justin Jefferson all over the field. Third downs, red zone and 2-minute situations would be particularly advantageous situations, O'Connell believed. Adofo-Mensah was soon convinced, and on November 1, he pulled off the most impactful in-season NFL trade of 2022 by acquiring Hockenson in exchange for moving lower in one round of both the 2023 and 2024 drafts.
"Tight end is something that honestly [O'Connell] has taught me a lot about in the past couple months or so," Adofo-Mensah said at the time. "... When you try to evaluate that position, sometimes you'll get enamored by how receivers win [compared to tight ends] and it's just a different position. I had actually [studied] T.J. more recently and updated those things and coincidentally he ended up here."
Adofo-Mensah had entered the season with a relatively thin tight end position, hoping largely for a full and productive return from veteran Irv Smith Jr., who missed 2021 because of a knee injury. But Smith's injury issues continued, and Hockenson's immediate performance in O'Connell's scheme has been eye-opening. He established an instant connection with quarterback Kirk 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.
Hockenson's individual play has not been as flashy as Kelce or even the San Francisco 49ers' George Kittle, but his impact compares favorably with some of the most consequential in-season trades in recent league history, a list that includes the Dallas Cowboys' acquisition of receiver Amari Cooper in 2018 and the Seattle Seahawks' deal for running back Marshawn Lynch in 2010.
"It really has been a whirlwind," Hockenson said after setting a team record Saturday for catches by a tight end in a game (13) in the Vikings' 27-24 victory over the New York Giants. "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."
Whenever he chooses to look back, the numbers will be clear. In eight games since joining the Vikings, Hockenson has caught more passes (52) and played more snaps (490) than any tight end in the league. He has accumulated the second-most yardage (444) and first downs (23) over that span, behind Kelce. And in supporting O'Connell's vision for the position, he has led NFL tight ends in catches (17), yards (187) and first downs converted (10) on third down. Finally, Hockenson has three red zone touchdowns and has accumulated the Vikings' second-most yards from scrimmage (58) in 2-minute drills during the end of either half.
The growth of raw passing statistics in the NFL make it difficult to compare eras, but it's tough to find many midseason trades that match or exceed the production Hockenson has brought his new team in his first season. Cooper caught 53 passes in nine games with the Cowboys in 2019, while Lynch rushed for 573 yards in 12 games with the Seahawks in 2010.
To be fair, a significant portion of Hockenson's performance can be traced to what O'Connell called "some of these shell defenses we get quite a bit" to focus on Jefferson. Hockenson has found the area underneath to be fertile. His average target with the Vikings has been 7.7 yards downfield, and only two have been more than 20 yards downfield. Both fell incomplete.
"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."
If there's something to knock Hockenson for, it's that he hasn't broken many tackles to turn those catches into explosive plays. His average catch for the Vikings has gone for 8.4 yards, well below Kelce (14.1) and Kittle (16.4) over the same span. That's largely because he is averaging only 3.25 yards after the catch, No. 25 in the NFL among tight ends since Week 9.
Regardless, Hockenson's jolt to the Vikings' offense has been instant. He caught nine passes and played 60 snaps four days after the trade, and for his first several weeks with the team, he would find himself running routes in games that he had never run during a full-speed rep in practice, according to tight ends coach/passing game coordinator Brian Angelichio.
"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."
Hockenson's two touchdowns against the Giants demonstrate the mixture of opportunity and skill he has capitalized on. On the first, the Giants' defense lost track of him in the back of the end zone as it focused on a double-team of Jefferson. On the second, however, Cousins laid out a 50-50 ball that he trusted Hockenson to grab over Giants safety Julian Love. Hockenson jumped and secured it over Love's helmet on a play that gave the Vikings an 8-point fourth-quarter lead.
Cousins has made a habit out of finding tight ends within the scheme in his career, having entered this season ranked No. 4 among NFL quarterbacks in tight end targets (810) and touchdowns thrown to tight ends (49), and he said: "I was pretty comfortable with [Hockenson] from Day 1."
All of which has made it easy to project a long tenure in Minnesota for Hockenson, who turns 26 this summer. His immediate unlocking of O'Connell's scheme should provide Adofo-Mensah with all the evidence he needs, especially when considering that Kelce is still rolling at age 33. Kittle, meanwhile, just turned 29. Sometimes, a relatively safe swing can lead to a booming home run.