Minnesota Vikings tight end T.J. Hockenson gets set against the...

Minnesota Vikings tight end T.J. Hockenson gets set against the New York Giants during the second half of an NFL football game Dec. 24, 2022, in Minneapolis. Hockenson is rehabilitating from surgery that repaired the ACL in his right knee. There is no promise he will be ready in time to play in the season opener. He remains unhappy about the low hit by Detroit Lions safety Kerby Joseph that injured him on Dec. 24, 2023. Credit: AP/Stacy Bengs

EAGAN, Minn. — For as smooth as the rehabilitation process has been for T.J. Hockenson since he tore the ACL in his right knee, the Minnesota Vikings tight end is not even halfway done with it.

Hockenson's seventh year in the NFL will undoubtedly be his most difficult, with no promise he'll be ready in time to play in the season opener, and in his opinion it didn't have to be this way.

The low hit by Detroit Lions safety Kerby Joseph that injured Hockenson in the game at Minnesota on Dec. 24 was repeated in the same manner by the same player two weeks later on Los Angeles Rams tight end Tyler Higbee with the same result.

“I've got nothing against him. I’ve played with him in Detroit. I understand that’s kind of what they expect you to do in the league,” Hockenson said on Monday in his first public interview since the injury. “But on the same hand, I would’ve much rather gone down with a concussion for two weeks than have to go through this for nine months.”

For all the advantages given to offensive players, Hockenson argued that their prohibition on cut blocks outside the tackle box ought to be matched by a ban on defensive players being able to take those dives in order to bring down a ball carrier. Hockenson had a 24-yard reception on the fateful play before Joseph hit him at the knee with his helmet.

“When you have a guy 25 yards downfield, looking back at the ball and trying to make a play, and then you have another guy not even staring at the defender and just kind of putting his helmet down at the knee, you see what happens with that,” Hockenson said. “You see it doesn’t put the offensive player in a good position and it doesn’t put the defensive player in a good position. His helmet’s straight down, looking at the ground. That’s not a good football tackle. That’s not good football position.”

Hockenson and Higbee had the same surgeon, Dr. Neal ElAttrache in Los Angeles. Allowing his damaged MCL to fully heal, Hockenson waited until Jan. 29 to have his ACL reconstruction. That pushed back the clock on his recovery a bit but ought to improve his overall outlook for the season. Still, the most likely scenario seems to be making his 2024 debut sometime after the opener.

“Anything is possible, obviously,” Hockenson said. “I'm definitely not going to put a timetable on it.”

For the moment, on the first day of organized offseason workouts, Hockenson was focused on squats, dead lifts and other basics to strengthen the leg muscles around the knee.

“Daily improvement. That's all we're really hunting right now," coach Kevin O’Connell said. “T.J.'s going to do everything in his power in many ways to get back as fast as possible.”

One unsurprising first-day absence was wide receiver Justin Jefferson, who has entered the final year of his contract without agreement yet on an extension.

O'Connell said he's not focused on whether Jefferson will join his teammates for any of these spring activities that are considered optional — the minicamp in early June is mandatory — but made clear the Vikings would benefit from Jefferson's presence in an offseason painted by a major change with a new quarterback.

“There's nobody I love having more around on a daily basis because of how he elevates others truly,” O'Connell said.

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