Expectations for a top-10 pick are always going to be high. And when that pick is a tight end, you better be one of the best in the league, or Detroit Lions fans are going to be mad.
The Lions have an odd history of drafting tight ends high in recent history. Eric Ebron—10th overall—didn’t work out as planned. Meanwhile, Brandon Pettigrew—20th overall—had a productive, yet still underwhelming career in Detroit.
It’s unfair to unload those disappointments onto T.J. Hockenson’s shoulders, but it’s going to be done regardless. And having been drafted higher than both players—eighth overall—only adds to extremely high expectations.
One year into his career, it’s far too early to make any sort of proclamation about the trajectory of Hockenson’s career, but given his 2019 season, what can we expect of Year 2? Let’s take a closer look.
Expectations heading into 2019
As for any top-10 draft pick, expectations were very high for Hockenson. After he dominated training camp, many were expecting Hockenson to become a top-10 tight end the minute he took the field.
That all being said, the output for rookie tight ends is notoriously low, as it’s one of the more difficult positions to adjust to at the next level. Still, given that Hockenson came from a pro-style offense at Iowa, many assumed Hockenson could be a rare talent from his first snap.
Actual role in 2019
2019 stats: 12 games (7 starts): 32 catches, 367 yards, 2 TDs
PFF grade: 60.5 (29th out of 44 qualifying TEs)
Hockenson burst onto the scene with one of the best NFL debut performances in NFL history. The rookie tight end hauled in six catches for 131 yards and a score in Week 1 against the Cardinals, an NFL record for a tight end debut.
But his production slowed down almost immediately. He eclipsed 50 yards in just one more game the rest of the season, and only caught four or more passes in two more games. Even looking back on that Cardinals game causes some hesitation. Arizona was absolutely horrendous against tight ends for all of 2019.
Still, Hockenson showed flashes of what he can do sprinkled throughout the entire season, just never showed the consistency many were hoping to see right out of the game.
His 367 receiving yards are actually still quite impressive for a first-year rookie, especially when you consider he missed the final four games with a nasty ankle injury. MLive’s Kyle Meinke took a look at the last 20 tight ends taken in the first round prior to Hockenson. Their average production: 30 catches, 339.5 yards, 2.4 touchdowns. Those numbers are shockingly similar to Hockenson’s production, even with the rookie missing the last month of the season.
Outlook for 2020
Contract status: Signed through 2022 (fifth year option pending)
Despite a disappointing rookie year after such a hot start, most are still optimistic about Hockenson’s future. He showed his immense talent and potential during training camp and in that Week 1 game against the Cardinals. First-year struggles are extremely common for tight ends.
But how much improvement can we expect in one year? I looked at the first and second-year splits for each tight end taken in the top two rounds of the 2015-2018 drafts. Here are the results:
Maxx Williams Year 1: 32 catches, 268 yards, 1 TD
Maxx Williams Year 2: 0 catches, 0 yards — (IR after Week 4)
Hunter Henry Year 1: 36 catches, 478 yards, 8 TDs
Hunter Henry Year 2: 45 catches, 579 yards, 4 TDs
Adam Shaheen Year 1: 12 catches, 127 yards, 3 TDs
Adam Shaheen Year 2: 5 catches, 48 yards, 1 TD
Gerald Everett Year 1: 16 catches, 244 yards, 2 TDs
Gerald Everett Year 2: 33 catches, 320 yards, 3 TDs
Mike Gesicki Year 1: 22 catches, 202 yards, 0 TDs
Mike Gesicki Year 2: 51 catches, 570 yards, 5 TDs
Dallas Goedert Year 1: 33 catches, 334 yards, 4 TDs
Dallas Goedert Year 2: 58 catches, 607 yards, 5 TDs
David Njoku Year 1: 32 catches, 386 yards, 4 TDs
David Njoku Year 2: 56 catches, 639 yards, 4 TDs
Evan Engram Year 1: 64 catches, 722 yards, 6 TDs
Evan Engram Year 2: 45 catches, 577 yards, 3 TDs
O.J. Howard Year 1: 26 catches, 432 yards, 6 TDs
O.J. Howard Year 2: 34 catches, 565 yards, 5 TDs
Hayden Hurst Year 1: 13 catches, 163 yards, 1 TD
Hayden Hurst Year 2: 30 catches, 349 yards, 2 TDs
Add all of those up and tight ends taken in the top two rounds over the past four years improved by an average 7.1 catches and 89.3 yards in Year 2. Oddly enough, touchdowns actually decreased by an average of -0.3 from Year 1 to Year 2.
Of course, given that Hockenson is a top 10 pick, expectations should certainly be higher. The Lions drafted him with the belief that he would become one of the best tight ends in the league. So it’s not unrealistic to expect a Year 2 jump like that of Gesicki, Goedert, and Njoku—all three of whom added at least another 250 receiving yards in their second year.
So if we add around 250 yards to Hockenson’s rookie season, that would put his expected output around 600-650 yards. Admittedly, that’s on the higher end of just about everyone above—and it’s important to point out that not everyone’s progression was in a positive direction—but with a top-10 pick comes high expectations. If Hockenson doesn’t make a jump to around that level, the discontent around that pick will only grow louder.