Vikings Need 1 Player to Discover His Potential in 2024

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Most of the storylines in the 2024 offseason have been resolved by the Minnesota Vikings, who had to fill some major holes following the departures of various key players. Still, general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has done that and found respectable replacements for all exiting contributors in free agency and the draft.

Vikings Need 1 Player to Discover His Potential in 2024

Justin Jefferson’s contract extension was another big element. His name often appeared in the headlines, and rumors about a potential trade were endless in the slower parts of the offseason. Ultimately, the Vikings and their star wideout agreed to a contract extension that keeps him in Minnesota until at least 2028.

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Outside of some camp battles in training camp, the only item that is unclear is the recovery timeline of star tight end T.J. Hockenson. He suffered a torn ACL in Week 16 when his former teammate Kerby Joseph hit him on the knee with a legal but controversial tackle. Severe swelling delayed the surgery and, therefore, the recovery.

An optimistic outlook of nine months post-surgery puts his return date at some point in late October. While nothing has been confirmed, and neither the team nor the player have released much information to the public, seeing Hockenson play in the first few games of the season seems unlikely. He would miss the first six contests if the team placed him on the physically unable-to-perform list.

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Someone must take his spot at the tight end position if he misses the season’s first games. For that role, many players could be used by head coach Kevin O’Connell. The Vikings signed Robert Tonyan, a former Packers and Bears rival who is a solid pass-catcher. He will compete with Hockenson’s late-season replacement, Johnny Mundt.

In addition, the Vikings have moved N’Keal Harry to tight end after years of struggles as a wide receiver, and 2022 seventh-rounder Nick Muse remains with the team. International Pathway player Sammis Reyes and undrafted rookie Trey Knox are long shots to make the team but will have a chance to surprise the coaching staff in training camp.

josh oliver
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One guy, however, who could be the main beneficiary is Josh Oliver. Last year’s free-agent addition was signed as a blocking specialist, but the Vikings likely envisioned some more production as a receiver when they handed him a three-year, $24 million contract. He set career-high numbers but still only generated 213 yards and two touchdowns in his first season with his new team.

He will undoubtedly have respectable snap counts with or without Hockenson, but if he can live up to his pre-draft expectations as a weapon in the passing game, he could be the ideal replacement as a true three-down tight end. Strangely, coming out of San Jose State in 2019, Oliver was viewed as a receiving tight end who had to learn the blocking aspect of the position. NFL draft analyst Lance Zierlein wrote about him as a prospect:

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.

Lance Zierlein

The Jacksonville Jaguars selected him early in the third round after he turned some heads with a 4.63-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine. Injuries limited him to only four games in two seasons with the Jaguars before they shipped him to Baltimore.

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]

Of course, Baltimore’s offense primarily ran through fellow tight end Mark Andrews, but the tight end-heavy system allowed Oliver to be valuable as a blocker. He mostly stayed healthy and played in 31 matchups in two seasons, catching 23 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns.

The Vikings need someone to step up sans Hockenson, and Oliver’s emergence as a receiver would be the simplest solution rather than running a complicated rotation that might tip off the plays to the opponents based on the type of tight end O’Connell sends onto the field on any given play.

At age 27, Oliver is in his physical prime and should use his athletic profile to his advantage. If he can do that and pair a receiving skillset with his electric blocking, 2024 could be his breakout season. However, after the past three seasons, it is reasonable to remain skeptical about that possibility.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and prefers Classic rock over other genres. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt