It’s only fitting in a topsy-turvy NFL year that we get an incredibly rare last-minute intra-division trade. Just hours before the 4 p.m. ET trade deadline, the Detroit Lions dealt Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson to their NFC North rival, the Minnesota Vikings.
The Vikings receive Hockenson, a fourth-round pick in 2023 and a conditional pick in 2024, while sending a 2023 second-round pick and 2024 third-round pick to Detroit. The deal is pending a physical.
It’s the first trade within the North by the Lions since 1998, when they traded running back Glyn Milburn to the Green Bay Packers, according to ESPN Stats & Info. It signifies the self-awareness of the 1-6 Lions and the reality that the Vikings are the best team in the division.
Minnesota is cruising on a five-game win streak with the largest division lead of any team in the league right now at 6-1. (The Packers and Bears are both 3-5.) They are finding ways to win every week behind a revamped offense with head coach Kevin O’Connell leading the way, and if there was one area the unit could have been lacking, it might have been at tight end.
Fourth-year player Irv Smith Jr. is dealing with a high-ankle sprain and was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday. He could reportedly be out 8-10 weeks. Sunday’s game against the Cardinals saw tight end Johnny Mundt catch the first touchdown pass of his career as he played 61% of the team’s offensive snaps to Smith’s 48%.
The Vikings also ran multiple-tight-end sets on just 1.5% of snaps on Sunday. That was down from 16% against the Miami Dolphins. In the passing game, quarterback Kirk Cousins hadn’t been able to connect as well with his tight ends, either. He currently ranks 30th in quarterback rating and dead last in yards per attempt when targeting tight ends this season.
That could all change now that they get the help of Hockenson, who was a top-10 pick in 2019 by the Lions and is still on his rookie contract. Hockenson made the Pro Bowl in his second season and had been somewhat of a safety net for Detroit quarterback Jared Goff so far this year. Through seven games, Hockenson had 26 receptions for 395 yards and three touchdowns with the highest yards-per-target average of his career at 9.2.
This is the third intra-division trade for Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, who had already traded picks with both the Lions and the Packers in the 2022 NFL Draft. In a weakened NFC, it seems Minnesota realizes the opportunity it has in front of them, especially with the perennial division champion Green Bay Packers struggling at 3-5.
The Vikings are middling in most major offensive categories, even with playmakers like Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook propelling the unit. But a balanced effort with some creative playcalling and adjustments by the team’s offensive staff has them ranked in the top 10 in points scored, with a per-game average of 24.7. They rank fifth inside the red zone and that should only improve with a big target like Hockenson now in the fold.
Hockenson had his best game this season in Week 4, when the Lions took the Seattle Seahawks down to the wire. The tight end caught eight of 12 targets for 179 yards and two touchdowns. Seven of the Lions’ 27 first downs in the game were because of Hockenson. He also averaged 13.63 yards after the catch and caught an absolute bomb on an 81-yard pass from Goff before halftime.
The Vikings will play the Commanders in Washington this Sunday.
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.
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