EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — The video review for the Minnesota Vikings of their previous game against Detroit has prompted the occasional double-take in the film rooms this week.
Flashing on the screen during study sessions on the upcoming opponent was none other than tight end T.J. Hockenson, wearing white, silver and blue while catching a touchdown pass to put the Lions up 14-0 in the second quarter.
That was still his team six weeks ago, his colors for 3½ seasons. That 28-24 win over Detroit in Week 3, though, feels for the Vikings like a whole other year given how many tight games they’ve played since then — and how much they’ve separated themselves from the rest of the division.
The offense remains a work in progress, still searching for another level of production and a performance that could be constituted as complete, but the addition of Hockenson after the surprising trade with the Lions has been an unquestionable upgrade for the Vikings (10-2).
The Lions (5-7) have begun to find their stride, but Minnesota can clinch the NFC North with a win Sunday at Ford Field.
“We’ve got to keep using his skillset and putting it to work, and he’ll continue to make a difference for us,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said, adding: “There’s good size there, he’s getting good matchups and he’s been decisive with his route running.”
When the coaching staff was looped in on the trade talks, offensive coordinator Wes Phillips was taken aback: “Really? We have a chance to get this guy?”
The price for the Vikings was simply a downgrade of two draft picks with no net loss — a 2023 second-rounder and a 2024 third-rounder to the Lions with a 2023 fourth-rounder and a conditional 2024 fourth-rounder coming back.
Cousins had no hesitation in throwing to the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Hockenson, who was the No. 8 overall pick in the 2019 draft out of Iowa. He’s been targeted 40 times in five games, with 30 receptions for 225 yards and one touchdown.
Since Hockenson arrived, he’s had 16 passes come his way from Cousins on third down, behind only the 18 targeting Justin Jefferson.
“I’m just trying to kind of get on his good side,” Hockenson said, laughing. “Really, when things are going down the wrong road, he’s got someone to look to that’s a little closer to him rather than down the field.”
Front of mind for Hockenson continues to be cramming to fully grasp the offense he was thrown into on Nov. 1 when the trade was made. He noted in an interview Thursday that the rest of the Vikings were in the immersive learning environment of training camp for the same amount of time he’s been with the team.
Hockenson still owns his house in the Detroit area, so his family traveling to watch the game Sunday will stay there. He has joked about winding up in the wrong locker room, out of old habit. The mention of this matchup against friends-turned-foes brought an easy smile, not discomfort.
“This is the first time, so we’ll see how it goes,” Hockenson said. “But this isn’t the last time either. It’s a good feeling.”
The Hockenson trade wasn’t the only deal these teams made this year. Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah started his first draft on the job by moving down 20 spots in the first round in for a second-round upgrade from 46th to 34th and net a third-rounder at 66th.
With the No. 32 overall pick the Lions sent them in that swap, the Vikings took safety Lewis Cine, who suffered a season-ending broken leg in Week 4. The Lions at No. 12 selected wide receiver Jameson Williams, who recently completed his rehabilitation from a torn ACL and made his NFL debut just last week. Intra-division trades are rare, but Adofo-Mensah has not shied from them.
“We were big fans of Jameson. It’s hard not to be, from studying his tape in college. We knew he would be able to come off the injury, and he’s been having a huge impact on their team and will moving forward,” coach Kevin O’Connell said. “But I just think it all goes back to Kwesi and I, that dialogue we had before the draft, leading into and during. Quite honestly, there were no surprises left that we hadn’t really talked about ahead of time — and just following through with the plan of how we wanted to competitively reload and rebuild.”
By DAVE CAMPBELL AP Pro Football Writer
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Photo: © Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports