Minnesota Vikings tight end TJ Hockenson warms up before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday, November 20, 2022 in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
MINNEAPOLIS — Three weeks after signing a deal in the final hours before the NFL trade deadline, TJ Hockenson is still familiarizing himself with his new home.
“I was trying to acclimate,” Hockenson said from his locker at US Bank Stadium. “I’ve been in the hotel for three weeks, just got out. So now you can really explore the city a bit.”
The former standout tight end from Iowa has been a little busy being the new go-to receiver for a Minnesota Vikings team well-positioned to potentially have a deep postseason run.
“He’s had a really good influence on our offense,” Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell told The Gazette. “He’s played a lot of games for us. He’ll make a lot of moves for us to progress.
In Hockenson’s first game as Vikings — five days after he was dealt — quarterback Kirk Cousins took aim at him nine times. He caught all nine passes for 70 yards.
Then, on his next game, he caught seven of the 10 passes Cousins aimed at him and had 45 yards.
Cousins said Hockenson “learned the system very quickly.”
“He’s done a great job taking on this challenge in such a short amount of time,” Cousins said on Sunday.
However, picking up the playbook remains a work in progress.
“I’m still learning,” Hockenson said. “It’s far from perfect for me. I have a lot to learn. … I’m on my way, but I’m far from there.”
Cousins also credited O’Connell with “doing a great job bringing TJ into the plan”.
“We’re going to continue to build on his comfort on our offense and all the different facets of our play,” O’Connell said. “He’s just studying on the side.”
Things haven’t always been smooth sailing for the Vikings since the Iowa grad arrived. Hockenson suffered his first loss on Sunday in Minnesota when the Dallas Cowboys beat the Vikings 40-3.
“I wouldn’t say you ever want that feeling,” said Hockenson with some melancholy, fresh from the loss and still wearing the number 87 jersey.
Cousins twice targeted Hockenson in the red zone for a promising drive, but they failed to connect with Hockenson’s first touchdown in purple and gold. Minnesota had to settle for a field goal.
“Those are two that I definitely want to have back,” said Hockenson.
Cousins set new season lows when he recorded 105 passing yards and completed 52.2 percent of his passes. He recorded seven sacks against the Cowboys — as many as in the Vikings’ first four games combined.
But even then, Hockenson’s five receptions for 34 yards were the Vikings’ best. It was the first game in nearly two years in which a tight end caused Minnesota to gain yards.
Hockenson has given the Vikings a much-needed boost in the tight end position.
Irv Smith Jr. started the season as a starting tight end, but the 2019 second-round pick is on injured reserve with an ankle injury. Backup Johnny Mundt never caught more than four passes in a season until this year.
Now the Vikings have a former Pro Bowler on the tight end to complement standout wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen.
“On this offense and on this team, we’re always going to involve our Y, our tight ends, in the passing game and there’s always going to be some performance,” Cousins told The Gazette.
Meanwhile, Hockenson finally has a chance to play on an NFL team that’s still competitive late in the season.
Hockenson’s first three and a half seasons were with a Lions team that was always far from a competitor. Detroit was a combined 12-39-2 in the silver and Honolulu blues in Hockenson’s day.
The Lions’ best season while Hockenson was there ended in a 5–11 record. All three seasons were last places in the NFC North.
But now Hockenson is on a team that could be fighting for a Super Bowl. The Vikings are 8-2 with a four-game lead in the NFC North.
“Every game is a big one,” said Hockenson. “It’s a big challenge for all of us, myself included, so it was definitely a great time.”
Before Sunday’s 40-3 loss to the Cowboys, Caesars Sportsbook gave Minnesota the fifth-best chance of winning the Super Bowl. The only NFC teams with higher odds were the Eagles and 49ers.
“This team can do a lot,” said Hockenson. “This is one of the best groups I’ve been in, one of the tightest groups I’ve been in – coaches, players, staff, everyone. So there’s no telling where this thing may go.”
Wins and losses aside, Hockenson’s new home has some perks for his family.
His parents made the more than nine-hour drive from Chariton to Detroit to see his NFL games. The trip to Minneapolis is much shorter.
“Cut your travel time in half,” Hockenson said. “They loved it.”
“Everything” in Iowa prepared Hockenson for the NFL
Hockenson will “always give credit” to Iowa’s Kirk and Brian Ferentz in his fourth NFL season.
“They’re definitely the reason I’m where I am,” Hockenson said.
It’s not just because of one aspect of the Iowa system. “Anything” helped Hockenson prepare for the NFL, “from being a hard-nosed player to trying to do everything you can on the position — not just unilaterally.”
Brian Ferentz “taught me a lot,” Hockenson said, whether it was about defensive coverage or “how the big ones do it” at the tight end. Ferentz was previously the New England Patriots coach when stars Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were there.
“He was with Gronk, and he was with some really good players,” Hockenson said. “There is no doubt that he helped me a lot.”
Hockenson has kept an eye on his alma mater – seeing the Hawkeyes retain the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy the previous day “definitely brought him back to my roots” – and of course the tight end position.
As Hockenson adjusts to his new home, he sees plenty of potential for Sam LaPorta, Iowa’s top tight end, to find an NFL home even after his college career ends.
“I love seeing him on Saturdays,” Hockenson said. “I’m sure it will be great fun to watch him on Sundays.”
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