Vikings' T.J. Hockenson says NFL needs to look into low hits

EAGAN, Minn. -- Vikings tight end T.J. Hockenson has had a long time to think about the controversial hit that ended his 2023 season and could keep him out from the start of 2024. Speaking publicly Monday for the first time since, Hockenson's mood boiled down to seven words.

"Obviously," he said, "I wasn't too happy about it."

As he continues his rehabilitation from torn ACL and MCL ligaments in his right knee, an injury he suffered from a direct hit by Detroit Lions safety Kerby Joseph in Week 16, Hockenson had plenty more to say. While stopping short of accusing Joseph of intending to injure him -- or Los Angeles Rams tight end Tyler Higbee on an identical play in the playoffs -- Hockenson said that players should protect one another as much as possible.

He called on the NFL to address why defenders can hit pass-catchers low in those situations, but offensive players can't cut-block in similar areas and said he would have preferred to have suffered a concussion on an illegal hit than a major knee injury on low but legal contact.

"It's tough," Hockenson said. "It really is. We're big guys running through the middle of the field. This is a business, and I don't think anyone goes out on the field wanting to injure a player like that. So, I'm looking at the light of that and hoping that's not what the intent was, to injure a player in that sense. But I think to have it happen a couple weeks later [with Higbee], I think that's something the league needs to look and see what it can do."

Hockenson and Joseph were teammates in Detroit for part of the 2022 season, before the Lions traded Hockenson to the Vikings. On Dec. 24, 2023, Hockenson had just pulled in a 24-yard reception over the middle when Joseph tackled him with a hit to the knee with the crown of the helmet.

Joseph told reporters in January that he was simply trying to make a tackle and that the injury was "unfortunate." Coach Dan Campbell also supported Joseph, saying "that's how we play football here" and that the intent is to hit the "thigh board" to avoid illegal hits to the head.

"I know Kerby pretty well," Hockenson said. "I've played with him. I don't necessarily think it was [intended to injure]. You go back on the tape and you see what happened. I know him. I don't think it was. I just want to make sure it wasn't and that's why I'm using my voice here. Players protect players. That's in any facet of the league. You don't want a defensive guy head-hunting or knee-hunting, and the same thing for an offensive guy."

Hockenson echoed other NFL players in saying that he would have preferred a concussion despite the long-term risks of head injuries.

"That puts me out two weeks or three weeks," he said. "This put me out nine months. I can't even train. ... I would have had a normal offseason getting ready for the season. I know some [concussions] are worse than others, and I don't want to go down that train of what's worse and what's better. But I've had a concussion. It took me a week. I'm just looking at it from that pure timetable."

The Vikings have not put a firm timetable on Hockenson's return to the field, but the standard recovery from his surgery would put him back on the field in late September or early October. He is a key part of the Vikings' offense, which led the NFL last season in tight end targets (179) -- and not just because receiver Justin Jefferson missed seven games because of a hamstring injury.

In coach Kevin O'Connell's two seasons with the team, the Vikings rank second in tight end targets (325) behind the Kansas City Chiefs (380), who have featured veteran Travis Kelce over that period. Hockenson has accounted for 83.3% of the Vikings' tight end targets in the games he has played. In 25 career games with the team, dating back to his 2022 midseason acquisition from the Lions, Hockenson has caught more passes (155) than any other tight end in the NFL, for the second-most yards (1,479).

"You go out trusting the defense not to take you out," he said. "You trust the offense not to take you out. You trust that the players are going to protect each other. That's what you want. Sometimes that doesn't happen in the heat of the game. That's understandable. But the fact is that you don't want a guy coming in and saying, 'I'm going to do this to this guy.' I hope that's not what the case was.

"And I hope that's not the case with any player. I'm not saying that is or that isn't, but you really want the players to protect other players. Whether it's taught or it's not taught from the team or from the league. You just want to be able to protect another guy. That's his career. That's his livelihood. You don't want to affect that, and that's what it's done. At any point, at any play, your career could be over. You don't want to be the guy that did that. At least I don't."

Meanwhile, Jefferson did not report to the Vikings' voluntary workouts Monday, O'Connell confirmed. O'Connell said that it "remains to be seen" whether Jefferson will report later this spring. "We want him here as much as we can have him and also understand there's a lot of factors involved," O'Connell said.

Jefferson missed all of the Vikings' 2023 voluntary workouts before reporting for mandatory minicamp as he worked through negotiations on a long-term contract extension that has yet to be resolved. He said at the time that his absence was simply the result of having "a lot of stuff going on," with no direct connection to his contract.

"They didn't really force me to come back too, too much. It didn't seem like I was missing too, too much. They definitely wanted me back here, and I wanted to be back here, but had a lot going on."