Josh Oliver Could Be the Key To Unlocking the Minnesota Vikings Offense

The Minnesota Vikings ran a three-receiver offense in 2022 and got results. But could tight end Josh Oliver be the key to reaching the next level?

The Minnesota Vikings have talked about the changes to their offense in a number of ways throughout the offseason, but one key element that has been emphasized has been the change in personnel. After adding tight end Josh Oliver, the Vikings are clearly changing how they run their offense.

Last year, the Vikings ranked seventh in total points scored but only 18th in expected points per play. There’s a good chance that without a change to how they run things, they could become a mediocre unit.

The Minnesota Vikings Loved 3-Receiver Sets in 2022

The Vikings, in an attempt to focus on their passing game, were a heavy “11” personnel team in 2022. That means using three receivers alongside one running back and one tight end. But with the acquisition of Oliver, a blocking tight end who previously played for the Baltimore Ravens, that looked like it was going to change.

So far, in training camp, that has borne out. The Vikings have deployed three-receiver sets significantly less often and employed the use of two running backs and two tight ends much more frequently.

That’s going to make the offense look substantially different. The Vikings ranked 26th in the NFL in 12 personnel usage — one running back and two tight ends — and fifth in the NFL in 11 personnel usage.

The Vikings were not necessarily that effective in 12 personnel last year, improving their run outcomes in EPA per play but generating worse results by the same metric when throwing the ball. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to move in that direction — the Vikings’ second tight end was either Johnny Mundt or Irv Smith Jr., neither of whom is as talented as the player that general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah brought in.

Josh Oliver Could Unlock the Passing Game

Justin Jefferson might be the most important non-quarterback on the offense, but Oliver might be the key to unlocking it. When Oliver was signed, Adofo-Mensah said, “Somebody like a Josh Oliver can actually make Justin Jefferson better.”

O’Connell agreed. “If we can run the football more efficiently and marry the run and the pass with play-pass keepers and screens and different variations of the pass game on our terms, I think that’s going to bode well [against] teams that want to feature so much coverage to Justin,” O’Connell said in Oliver’s introductory presser in March.

Though they were successful in passing the ball last year, they had difficulty being consistent about that success or protecting Cousins. “What ended up happening is,” said O’Connell, “That becomes something you can game plan for with coverage and double teams on J.J. If you’re playing zone coverage, how you’re loading zones to wherever he is, still trying to make Kirk [Cousins] hold the football and take some hits in the pocket.”

Last year, Cousins took more hits than any other quarterback in the pocket, with 131 hits on 698 dropbacks. Despite his incredible season, Jefferson had more difficulty getting open in 2022 than he did in 2021. This was even quantified by NFL’s Next Gen Stats and FiveThirtyEight’s use of the chip data.

In 2021, Jefferson had the second-best “open rate” for receivers, a measure that determines how often a receiver is open, regardless of target, using factors like the distance of the nearest defender, the type of coverage used on the play, the distance to the sideline, and so on. His score in this metric was 94.

Last year, Jefferson still did a remarkable job getting open, but it wasn’t as transcendent as 2021, instead making up for it with incredible catch after incredible catch. He ranked ninth among receivers in open rate, with a score of 81.

Changing the coverages might enable Jefferson to do much more damage. And forcing defenses into different personnel or moving safeties around because of the threat of the run — or even more effectively implementing play action — could change how often Jefferson sees double coverage or extra attention.

Josh Oliver’s Run Blocking Could Transform the Running Game

It’s not just about making Jefferson a better or more effective player. Oliver, as a high-level run blocker, can improve the run game to a substantial degree. Pro Football Focus ranked Oliver as the best run-blocking tight end with at least 150 run-blocking snaps, a cohort of 69 eligible players.

His rate of positive run blocks, 15.3%, paced the rest of the field. George Kittle’s 10.9% ranked a distant second.

Sports Info Solutions credited Oliver with having the second-lowest run-blocking blown-block percentage and the second-best score in run-blocking points produced per snap. That SIS and PFF agree tells us a lot about how dominant Oliver’s run-blocking ability is.

Josh Oliver (84) reacts during the game against the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium.

Oliver also earned votes among NFL executives when ESPN surveyed them to identify the top tight ends in the league, even though he only generated 149 receiving yards last year.

Oliver’s capacity to block did not materialize out of thin air; he was primarily asked to run block in his first two years at San Jose State. He didn’t fully develop that skill set until he played in Baltimore, but it perhaps shouldn’t have been an enormous shock.

He said that part of the reason he didn’t catch many eyes was because of his problems with injury in Jacksonville, but it helped to learn from Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle with the Ravens.

The Vikings weren’t a bad run-blocking unit last year. Christian Darrisaw, Ezra Cleveland, and Garrett Bradbury are all much better run blockers than they are pass protectors, and the Vikings finished 18th in run-block win rate, according to ESPN’s use of Next Gen Stats’ data. They finished fourth in both PFF’s and Next Gen Stats’ calculation of expected rushing yards per carry.

But adding that capacity to their running game should improve their approach, especially as the offensive line continues to develop. And it turns out it was actually Alexander Mattison, not Dalvin Cook, who led the Vikings last year in expected points per rush.

A good portion of that has to do with usage — it’s easier to gain expected points in short-yardage situations than on standard running downs. That’s why Mattison can exceed Cook in expected points per carry — by multiple formulations — while averaging fewer yards per carry.

All of this is to say the Vikings can focus on improving the running game without having to worry that losing Cook will hurt them too much.

Josh Oliver Might Secretly Be a Top-Flight Receiver

Providing direct help to the running game is good, and providing indirect help to the passing game is better. But directly improving the passing game could be Oliver’s biggest contribution, and it’s a reasonable expectation.

Oliver ranked fifth in the FBS in receiving yards, behind fourth-place T.J. Hockenson, and second in receptions per game in 2018. He was highly regarded in the draft as a receiving tight end, ranked 107th overall on the Consensus Big Board. And his biggest knock was a lack of blocking capability.

Dane Brugler of The Athletic ranked him 99th and, in his scouting report, said, “He developed into a productive pass catcher, including a breakthrough senior year, lining up inline, wing, and detached,” adding that “The Spartans had ‘FTS’ (Feed The Stud) play calls specifically to get Oliver the football with 38 of his 56 catches resulting in a first down or touchdown (67.9% rate ranked second in the FBS).”

Brugler noted that Oliver, known for his athleticism, couldn’t always convert his strength or enthusiastic willingness to block into run-blocking production but that he was largely functional with his blocking angles.

Vikings ffensive coordinator Wes Phillips agreed with that assessment. When he spoke about Oliver, he said, “When you look at his production — a lot of it last year was in the run game — but he was also a guy coming out that we graded that was very productive in the pass game. We were kind of saying, ‘We’re going to have to teach this guy how to block.’”

The ability to be a threat in three different ways seems to be what the Vikings are communicating to the rest of their offense. As Cousins told Vikings broadcaster Paul Allen on his radio show, “Well [Josh Oliver] gives us the unique ability to really secure the edge in the run game and then also in the pass game in some ways with pass protection,” he said.

“Then also [he has] versatility as a route runner,” added Cousins. “I think his speed down the field gives us some matchup issues. In that personnel grouping with him on the field, we can really hopefully dictate some things.”

That seemed to be the plan when Oliver signed, too. As he said in his introductory presser, “They see me as someone who can help work the edges, whether that’s blocking and then [as a] 1-2 punch in the pass game too, and help complement T.J. and J.J., so I’m excited.”

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