The Minnesota Vikings surprised everyone on Monday by agreeing to terms with former Baltimore Ravens tight end Josh Oliver on a three-year, $21 million deal with $10.75 million guaranteed. It was an interesting signing, because the Vikings didn’t seem to be in the market for a tight end. According to Sports Info Solutions, Minnesota ran only 134 plays out of 12 personnel in 2022, which ranked 27th in the National Football League. Not exactly an offense that utilizes multiple tight ends.
Why did they prioritize a second tight end right away in free agency? That could realistically be one of two answers.
- Talks of a T.J. Hockenson extension aren’t going as well as they hoped.
- Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has identified an inefficiency in the market.
With the multitude of needs that the Vikings have currently, a latter is the most likely. The idea was something that I had considered when they traded for Hockenson last season, but that was solidified when I was reminded of it by a tweet.
What is the idea behind a market inefficiency? Think about tight end as a fillet mignon priced like a sirloin at the grocery store. You can save around $10/lb. by doing so and getting better quality for less money. That’s the idea here.
When the Vikings were looking at the trade market last season to get another weapon to pair with Justin Jefferson, they were looking at a couple of wide receiver options, including Brandin Cooks. He was set to make a guaranteed salary of $18 million in 2023, and that was high for someone who is a complementary piece in an offense and not the top option. Is that worth paying? Likely not. The second wide receiver in an offense is likely to have a statline around 70 receptions for 850 yards and six touchdowns. That doesn’t feel like a good value.
Some of the recent big contracts handed out to wide receiver two types:
- Brandin Cooks: two years, $19.8 million AAV
- Christian Kirk: four years, $18 milllion AAV
- Kenny Golladay: four years, $18 million AAV
- Allen Robinson: three years, $15.5 million AAV
Big contracts to receivers who aren’t the alpha are proving to be not worth the investment. The wide receiver market currently is proving to be slow — a player like Jakobi Meyers is projected to get $16 million per season. Great for the player, awful for team-building. How do tight ends factor in here? In a few ways.
The biggest way is by utilizing 12 personnel. If you have multiple tight ends who can block and catch passes, that forces defenses to play with more linebackers on the field to defend the run, allowing offenses to get creative and create mismatches with linebackers who aren’t great in pass coverage.
When you look at EPA, the top two teams in total passing EPA this past season when running 12 personnel were the two teams in the Super Bowl: Philadelphia Eagles (31.76 EPA) and Kansas City Chiefs (31.25 EPA). What do those two teams have? A top tight end who they are paying instead of an expensive second wide receiver.
The Vikings identified that with Hockenson and it changed the complexity of the offense immediately. He finished 15th in the NFL with 86 receptions and 26th in yards with 914, and both ranked second among tight ends. The Vikings paid Hockenson less than $1 million last year, and he will make a shade more than $9 million in 2023.
What matters here more than anything is that Hockenson playing on a contract for elite tight end money is still making as much or less than non-elite receivers are making. That difference is massive in a league with a hard salary cap.
How does Oliver fit in the equation? He came into the league as a one-dimentional receiver out of San Jose State. He wasn’t a blocker for the Spartans and tested really well athletically as an 81.6th percentile athlete.
After flaming out in Jacksonville, Oliver signed the Baltimore Ravens and re-invented himself as a blocker. Per PFF, Oliver posted a 72.3 overall grade, with blocking grades of 74.0 (run-blocking) and 71.9 (pass-blocking). He can do a little bit of everything for you, and his specialty as a receiver is running up the seam. With his speed and size, he can out-leverage linebackers easily while giving his quarterback a big target.
How does the market play in here? Tight ends notoriously take a long time to develop. There is a saying in the scouting community that you are drafting your tight end for their next team because they take three to four years to develop. The emergence of Hockenson this past year during his fourth season is a prime example of this. By looking at both a weak wide receiver class that was going to get overpaid massively in free agency and a less-than-stellar draft class, the Vikings’ front office identified that a second tight end with upside at $7 million average annual value on a contract that might not be that lucrative was a smarter play than paying a guy like Meyers $16 million.
Opinions are mixed about Oliver, but this one from an NFL analyst gives Oliver a really nice floor, something you need with a TE2.