You don’t use the eighth pick in the NFL Draft on a tight end without a good reason. The Detroit Lions did just that a year ago when they picked T.J. Hockenson out of Iowa.
We’ve seen what an elite TE can do for an offense with the likes of George Kittle, Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz and Mark Andrews. Maybe it’s not as direct of a correlation as that, but let’s not discount the position. A tight end that can work the middle of the field and block effectively opens it up for everyone.
In Week 1 last year, Hockenson stormed out of the gates with six catches for 131 yards and a score. If you watch the highlights, he does it all. He makes key blocks, finds soft spots in coverage and makes plays everywhere. Yet for some reason, the Lions totally moved away from him. He went from nine targets in that opening week to 10 over the next three games.
There are a few factors to consider here. First, Matthew Stafford only played half the season. In that time, he was on pace for just shy of 5,000 passing yards and 38 TD passes. The Lions weren’t exactly airing it out either. Stafford was on pace for 582 pass attempts and that’s only a hair above the league average last year. The Lions finished with 571 attempts, ranking 17th. It may be hard to believe but Stafford had the fourth-highest scoring average among QBs, outpacing guys like Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, and Drew Brees.
I think we’ll see a reduction here because the main catalyst for this was the Lions’ poor defense. They were giving up 400 total yards (second-most) and nearly 26 points per game (seventh-most). You don’t have to play so aggressively with a lead or even when the score is close.
The next factor is the big one and that’s Hockenson himself. We need to rewind to the days before the NFL Draft. Take a look at this chart from NFL Next Gen Stats:
In the bottom left corner, they give Hockenson a 95 draft score. That’s the second-highest rating given to a tight end from 2009 to 2019. While his former Iowa teammate Noah Fant ultimately had the better combine that year since he is a touch better athletically, Hockenson is far-and-away one of the best blocking TEs to come into the league in a long time. He will prove to be a difference-maker because the Lions will never need to take him off the field. Detroit will even be able to use his blocking talent as a decoy to pull the defense to his side, especially if they continue to develop the backfield duo of Kerryon Johnson and D’Andre Swift.
Just like Kittle, who seems to absorb contact and fight for more yards, Hockenson has a similar build and “want-to” for getting upfield.
One small concern is the target distribution. Kenny Golladay had 116 targets. Danny Amendola (97) and Marvin Jones (91) should not be targeted as much as they were and more of those should really go to Golladay and Hockenson (59). Even J.D. McKissic somehow saw 42 targets.
As noted by AllLions reporter Logan Lamorandier, “Whether it's due to a large learning curve or scheme, Hockenson was not a focal point for the Lions' offense in 2019. That must change in 2020. Just like with former Detroit tight end Eric Ebron, a talented individual is not going to reach their full potential if they are the fourth option on a team.”
There’s the rub. The talent is there, it’s just up to the offense to get the ball in his hands.
Over in Baltimore, Andrews saw a huge jump from Year 1 to 2 (34-552-3 to 64-852-10). Kittle also enjoyed a big jump (43-515-2 to 88-1,377-5). I’m hoping for something similar from Hockenson. Given his ADP (126), that makes him a mid-11th rounder and the 14th TE drafted. I will admit that I like Atlanta’s Hayden Hurst a tiny bit more, but Hockenson is my second favorite option. I think the ankle injury that put him on injured reserve will continue to limit him into training camp. This might push him down the board a bit and create more value. The flow of the draft will ultimately determine when I pick my TE2, but Hockenson is absolutely on my radar given his ceiling and all-around game.