1 Vikings Sleeper Ready to Explode in 2023

Baltimore Ravens tight end Josh Oliver (84) spikes the ball after a touchdown score as tight end Mark Andrews (89) looks on and Jacksonville Jaguars safety Andre Cisco (5) is slow to get up after an attempted stop during the fourth quarter of a regular season NFL football matchup Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022 at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville. The Jaguars edged the Ravens 28-27. [Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union]

Every year, NFL teams have players that take on much bigger roles than expected going into the season. Last year, the Vikings saw a couple players fit this description, such as CB Duke Shelley and DT Khyiris Tonga. This year, keep an eye on another Vikings sleeper that is ready to explode, but this time on the offensive side of the ball. That player is none other than their very first free agency acquisition: TE Josh Oliver.

Now, of course, the tight end position largely will be manned by T.J. Hockenson. In just 10 games with the Vikings last year, Hockenson caught 60 passes for 519 yards and 3 TDs. He is well-deserving of the starting spot and should be in line for a massive new contract with the team. However, there is still a role for Oliver in the Vikings offense.

Vikings Sleeper
Dec 17, 2022; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns linebacker Tony Fields II (42) tackles Baltimore Ravens tight end Josh Oliver (84) during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-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 Oliver can have with his new team this season. There is a chance that he can emerge as one of the more important players on the offense this year and beyond.

Over the past couple seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, Oliver emerged as one of the better blocking tight ends in the entire league. 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. 

Do the Unexpected
Sep 18, 2022; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Baltimore Ravens tight end Josh Oliver (84) reacts during the game against the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports.

This playing time is important to keep in mind for Oliver’s future with the Vikings because expectations would be severely tempered if he hadn’t bounced back from his early struggles with injuries. He played a total of four games over his first two NFL seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars before being traded to the Ravens. During his two seasons in Baltimore, Oliver played 31 regular season games, including 10 starts.

There should be a much bigger focus on the running game in Minnesota during 2023, opening up opportunities for Oliver to continue his dominance as a blocker. 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 far too predictable.

Oliver is far more than just a blocking TE, though. In fact, take a look at how Lance Zierlein of NFL.com 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.

Nov 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Baltimore Ravens tight end Josh Oliver (84) takes on the field with tight end Mark Andrews (89) prior the game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

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.”

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, it seems logical that a talent like 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.

Coming into this season, Oliver has recorded 26 receptions for 230 yards and a pair of touchdowns throughout his career. Given his new role with the Vikings, there is a chance that these numbers could be doubled in 2023.

Josh Frey is a Class of 2020 graduate of The College of Idaho and managing editor of PurplePTSD.com. When he’s not writing about the NFL, Josh enjoys running, gaming, or rooting for the Milwaukee Brewers and Bucks. Check out his Twitter account: @Freyed_Chicken.