Vikings snapped up in-demand tight end Oliver in free agency
No-nonsense blocking tight end isn't normally a position associated with the frantic first wave of moves in the NFL's free agency signing period.
And yet there he stood, Josh Oliver, a soft-spoken, sturdy-looking 25-year-old who told Vikings reporters on Thursday that he knew a month ago that he'd be a Day 1 signing for some run-starved team looking for the lost art of dedicated brute-force blocking.
"I had a good feeling going in because I was drawing a lot of interest during the combine, my agent was saying," said Oliver, who left Baltimore for a three-year, $21 million deal with the Vikings. "Early on, it was almost like half the league. But it winnowed down to like four teams.
"This was the right opportunity, the right fit. I felt like it was the right team."
The 6-5, 249-pounder was a third-round pick of the Jaguars in 2019. Ironically, the knock on him coming out of San Jose State was he couldn't block.
"And now," he says, "I'm a 'blocking tight end.' So, you know, things change."
Injuries limited Oliver to four games as a rookie and cost him the entire 2020 season. He was traded to Baltimore in 2021 and credits the Ravens' rugged, run-oriented culture for transforming him into one of the best blocking tight ends in the league.
The Ravens had the No. 2-ranked rushing attack in 2022 (160 yards per game) while Oliver was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the best run-blocking tight end among those with at least 200 run-blocking snaps. Oliver had 353 run-blocking snaps, eighth-most among NFL tight ends last year.
The Vikings, meanwhile, ranked 27th in rushing (97.7) and struggled mightily to stay on the field in short-yardage situations. Coach Kevin O'Connell noted at the combine the high-priority need to be better in the run game on first downs if the Vikings are to take full advantage of a passing attack led by unanimous first-team All-Pro receiver Justin Jefferson and pass-catching tight end T.J. Hockenson.
"I've seen this offense from afar," Oliver said. "I seen it last season when they won 13 games and stuff. It's exciting to be part of guys like T.J., J.J. You got all these weapons and stuff. Just to complement those guys is exciting."
Oliver has only 26 catches in 46 targets in the three seasons he's played. He claims he's versatile enough to help in the passing game, but isn't ashamed to be known as a "blocking tight end."
"I take it as a compliment," he said. "Anytime you can be referred as having a specialty, that's a compliment in my eyes."
The contract he signed was a nice kudo, too, with $8.2 million guaranteed. And it doesn't appear to be too cumbersome for the cap-strapped Vikings considering this year's cap number — $3.5 million – is half the $7 million annual average.
Oliver said it took him a little time to embrace the blocking tight end mentality when he got to Baltimore.
"I just tried to get in where I fit in," he said. "Just grind my way into a spot."
Now, coming to Minnesota, the blocker in him is second nature.
"I haven't learned too much about the playbook or the offense yet," he said. "But I definitely think I can come in on the edges and help bring toughness and grittiness."
Apparently, adding some gritty to The Griddy was a priority worthy of the frantic first wave of free agency.