The matchup for Super Bowl LIV is set. The San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs are set to meet in Miami to fight for the ultimate crown. While both teams are very different in identity, they do have one particular thing in common, and it’s something they also have in common with other recent Super Bowl winners.
This year’s Super Bowl is a matchup between the two best tight ends in the NFL in the 49ers’ George Kittle and the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce.
Kittle eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the second time of his short three-year career in 2019. He caught 85 passes and scored on five of them, leading the 49ers in all three of the major receiving categories. He is an excellent blocker as well—he came out of college as a primarily blocking tight end—and showed it in the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers. While he did not catch a pass in his team’s big win until the fourth quarter, his work as a run blocker was crucial to running back Raheem Motsert’s record-setting performance.
Kelce has been doing it for much longer. He passed the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the fourth straight season in 2019. Kelce managed to lead the Chiefs’ high-octane offense in receiving yards, and has proven himself as the favorite target of Patrick Mahomes. Just like Kittle, he is also a ferocious blocker who has been crucial to the Chiefs’ ground game.
While both teams have a lot more going for them than just their tight ends, these two players add so much to their offense that it cannot be understated. Both can line up anywhere on the field and essentially operate as an extra wide receiver that can also line up on the end of the line. Both are great route runners that can both stretch the field and attack opposing defenses with short and intermediate routes. Both can pile up yards after the catch.
Previous Super Bowl teams have also benefited from having versatile tight ends that can single-handedly shift the entire dynamic of the offense. Rob Gronkowski was key to the New England Patriots dominant run in the late 2010s, and his retirement caused a once-elite offense to fall into mediocrity. Zach Ertz has become the only consistent receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles, and was key to their Super Bowl run in 2017.
Having an elite tight end is a massive advantage that cannot be quantified. It frees things up for your other receivers, gives your quarterback a reliable target anywhere on the field and boosts your run game. It seems like the NFL is moving towards a place that requires a team to have an elite tight end in order to succeed.
And that is where the Detroit Lions, and most notably rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson, come in.
The Lions drafted Hockenson with the eighth overall pick in the draft, betting that he would be that guy. Coming out of Iowa—where Kittle coincidentally also went to college—Hockenson was heralded for being a top-tier blocker and great receiver. His athletic profile excited many as well, as it means his ceiling is truly sky high.
Hockenson’s first NFL season was not kind to him. He struggled as both a blocker and a receiver. He failed to even reach the 400 yard mark in 12 games and would often disappear for long stretches of time.
Lions fans should not be too worried yet, though. Hockenson’s 30 receiving yards per game in Year 1 falls just short of the 34 Kittle and Gronkowski both averaged in their first NFL seasons. Kelce only played one game in his rookie year. Ertz had 29 receiving yards per game, and was a huge liability as a blocker before the past few seasons.
While Hockenson may not be there yet, he is not at all behind the pace set by some of the league's best tight ends. Detroit still has needs all over the field, but if Hockenson lives up to his eighth overall billing and becomes the elite tight end the Lions need him to be, he could be the offensive weapon that leads this team to the promised land one day.