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T.J. Hockenson trade reaction: Detroit Lions pushing more chips into future

The Detroit Lions’ trade of T.J. Hockenson is a sign they’re looking for longer, more sustainable success... but it’s going to take some time.

NFL Combine Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The title seems pretty obvious right? The Detroit Lions are 1-6. Of course whatever this team does in the trade market isn’t about today. There’s a lot more to that statement, though. The Lions didn’t just trade anyone on Tuesday, they traded away a Pro Bowl tight end who was their first-round pick just over three years ago.

Why would the Lions trade away a good, young player during a rebuild? It’s a question I’ve seen a lot since I suggested that trading away Hockenson was a good idea last week. The answer is simple. If you’re trying to build a team that can go out and have a winning season or two in the short term, then you keep a guy like Hockenson and you get him the top end tight end contract he’s going to pull in soon.

The Lion’s aren’t trying to be that team, though (and they probably don’t view Hockenson that way, either). They’re trying to be the team that’s built for long-term sustained success. One good way to do that is to trade away expensive assets for draft assets. The Lions definitely got a good return in this deal when they got back a 2023 second-round pick and a 2024 third-round pick, even if it meant parting with a couple of future fourth-round picks.

The Lions now have five picks that will almost certainly be in the top 75 for 2023: two firsts, two seconds, and a high third-round pick. They’re playing with house money in the upcoming draft. They can trade up, trade down or stick. They’ll have assets to do whatever they want with.

Right now it’s all about finding the pillars of this team and building around those pillars. The Lions have some of those pillars already. Amon-Ra St. Brown, Penei Sewell, Jeff Okudah, Aidan Hutchinson and Malcolm Rodriguez have already show that they can be a big part of this team’s future. The things they all have in common is that they’re young and cheap right now. It’s time to put more talent around those guys and fill this thing out.

That’s why you rid the team of guys that you don’t see as pillar now. Clearly the Lions didn’t see Hockenson that way. His production had dipped, his targets had dipped, and the Lions were really pushing off his contract extension talk. The Lions have other options at tight end that they can develop in James Mitchell and Brock Wright. So you go out there and see what you can get.

I know there are going to be some fans that are upset about trading Hockenson to a division rival, but it’s just not the Lions’ time right now. Detroit’s priority should be getting the best deal out of another team. If that team happens to be in the division, then so be it.

The Vikings window may not be very long, anyways. They’re near the bottom of the league in available cap space over the next couple years and they’re going to have to soon find a way to pay Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, Kirk Cousins and now Hockenson. The Vikings are built to take their shot right now. This really doesn’t fully affect the Lions because they weren’t going to contend right now anyways.

The Lions, on the other hand, have no pressing roster decisions anymore. I’m sure there will be guys the Lions would like to keep, down the road, but with a roster as young as they have, those contract discussions likely won’t need to come until 2024 and beyond—when Detroit’s salary cap situation is even cleaner. The Lions just traded away the only tricky situation ahead. This gives the team a ton of cash and a ton of draft assets to hit the ground running when the offseason rolls around.

I don’t think the Lions are done moving on from players after Tuesday’s deadline either. After the season concludes, look for guys like Jared Goff, Michael Brockers and more to possibly be on their way out of Detroit as the team looks to build towards the future with as many assets as they can have. This doesn’t do you a lot of good as a fan right now, but you have to be excited about the future of this team and the way they’re building it.