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T.J. Hockenson fifth-year option: Exercise, decline or offer an extension?

A deep look at whether the Lions should exercise Hockenson’s fifth-year option or not.

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions have a lot of big decisions ahead of them for this offseason. They need to fill out their coaching staff, there are some key free agents they’ll have to choose whether to re-sign or let walk, and they’ve also got a bunch of draft capital to use in April.

But one of the most overlooked decisions they’ll have to make in the next couple months involves a player they already drafted.

T.J. Hockenson, drafted eighth overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, is entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract. As a first-round pick, Hockenson is eligible for a fifth-year option, should the Lions choose to exercise it. Teams have until May 2 to make their decision on fifth-year options, but some teams have already started to commit to it. For example, the Buccaneers are reportedly picking up Devin White’s option.

Is Hockenson worth it? Is this an easy decision? Or should the Lions skip it altogether and just give the young tight end a brand-new extension.

Let’s break it down.

How much will the fifth-year option cost?

Up until last year, fifth-year option costs were based solely on draft position. However, that changed in 2021 with the new collective bargaining agreement. Now, the performance of the player can raise the value of that fifth-year option. Specifically, the snap count percentages and Pro Bowl appearances in the players’ first three years influence the price.

Hockenson made the Pro Bowl roster after the 2020 season, which means his fifth-year option is in the second-highest tier, behind only players who have made two or more Pro Bowls. In Hockenson’s draft class, only two first-rounders managed that: Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray and 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa.

The exact amount of Hockenson’s fifth-year option won’t be announced until the 2022 salary cap is officially set, but thankfully OverTheCap has projections. Based on their estimates, Hockenson’s option would cost $9,332,000.

One other recent change to fifth-year options that is worth mentioning is that these options are now fully guaranteed. You may remember a few years ago, the Lions exercised Eric Ebron’s fifth-year option, but ended up cutting him before the start of his fifth year in Detroit. Back then, the Lions weren’t on the hook for any of his option year salary, which was worth $8.25 million. So there was a lot less risk in exercising the option back then.

The Lions would no longer be able to do something like that without it costing them. If the Lions exercised Hockenson’s option then chose to cut him next offseason, the Lions would incur the full $9.3 million in dead cap.

Where would that rank among tight ends?

Let’s take a look at some of the highest salaries among NFL tight ends and where Hockenson’s (essentially) one-year, $9.3 million extension would land. Here are the per-year salaries for the 10 highest-paid tight ends, starting in 2023.

  1. George Kittle — $15 million/year
  2. Travis Kelce — $14.3 million/year
  3. Dallas Goedert — $14.25 million/year
  4. Mark Andrews - $14 million/year
  5. Hunter Henry — $12.5 million/year
  6. Jonnu Smith — $12.5 million/year
  7. Austin Hooper — $10.5 million/year
  8. Kyle Pitts — $8.2 million/year
  9. Logan Thomas — $8.0 million/year
  10. Darren Waller — $7.45 million/year

Hockenson’s contract would be eighth in the NFL among tight ends (so far). Obviously, there will be tight ends who sign contracts between now and 2023, but Hockenson’s deal will almost certainly still be in the top 10.

Is Hockenson worth top-10 money?

On the surface, the answer looks like an easy yes. Hockenson will be just 25 years old next season, and he’s already got a Pro Bowl under his belt. At times, he’s been the Lions’ most reliable receiver, and by all accounts, he’s a hard worker and a good teammate.

But let’s dig a little deeper. Here’s a look at the most productive tight ends since Hockenson entered the league (2019-2021):

  1. Travis Kelce: 294 catches, 3,770 yards, 25 TDs
  2. Darren Waller: 252 catches, 3,006 yards, 14 TDs
  3. Mark Andrews: 229 catches, 2,914 yards, 26 TDs
  4. George Kittle: 204 catches, 2,597 yards, 13 TDs
  5. Mike Gesicki: 177 catches, 2,053 yards, 13 TDs
  6. Zach Ertz: 198 catches, 2,014 yards, 12 TDs
  7. Dallas Goedert: 160 catches, 1,961 yards, 12 TDs
  8. Noah Fant: 170 catches, 1,905 yards, 10 TDs
  9. Hunter Henry: 165 catches, 1,868 yards, 18 TDs
  10. Tyler Higbee: 174 catches, 1,815 yards, 13 TDs
  11. Jared Cook: 128 catches, 1,773 yards, 20 TDs
  12. T.J. Hockenson: 160 catches, 1,673 yards, 12 TDs

Hockenson’s production is slightly below that top-10 group, and he hasn’t shown anywhere near the kinds of numbers that would make him a top-five tight end. There are a few reasons for that. For one, Hockenson is young, and as we detailed several times during the year he was drafted, it’s hard for rookie tight ends to make a big impact.

The other reason is injuries. Every tight end with more receiving yards than Hockenson over the past three years has also played more games than him (outside of George Kittle). If you were to rank tight ends over the last three years by receiving yards per game, Hockenson (41.8 yards per game) jumps up a spot to 11th, but is not that far off from the likes of Dallas Goedert (47.8) and Zach Ertz (46.8).

Hockenson didn’t have much of an injury problem in college, but he has now missed the last quarter of the season both in 2019 and 2021. It certainly is possible he would’ve played through his thumb injury last year had the team been more competitive, but when handing someone a fully-guaranteed contract—even if it’s just for one year—it’s worth considering injury history.

The other part of Hockenson’s game—his blocking—also needs to be considered. He was hailed as someone capable of doing both, especially coming from a pro-style offense at Iowa. Unfortunately, Hockenson hasn’t been a dominant blocker at the next level at this point in his career. Here’s a look at his PFF blocking grades each year and where it ranks among qualifying TEs (minimum 20% of snaps):

2019:

  • 35.2 pass blocking grade (76/78)
  • 60.8 run blocking grade (28/78)

2020:

  • 50.9 pass blocking grade (61/81)
  • 70.9 run blocking grade (14/81)

2021:

  • 65.4 pass blocking grade (40/85)
  • 45.1 run blocking grade (81/85)

The good news is that Hockenson’s pass blocking has improved every year, and outside of last season, he’s been a relatively decent run blocker. You may think Hockenson’s blocking isn’t a big deal since he’s mainly a receiving threat, but over his three-year career, 31.8 percent of his offensive snaps have been devoted to blocking. It’s a good chunk of his career.

Overall, it’s debatable whether Hockenson is a top-10 tight end. He’s right there on the edge of that conversation. But with the market constantly rising, and Hockenson still incredibly young, a $9.2 million price tag for Hockenson is absolutely fair and arguably a mild bargain.

What about a contract extension?

Last year, the Lions exercised Frank Ragnow’s fifth-year option, but essentially negated it by signing him to a four-year extension just a week later. Could they do the same thing here?

They made Ragnow the highest-paid center in the league, but I’m not sure they’d have to do the same for Hockenson. Regardless, let’s look at some of the most recent deals given to top-tier tight ends.

Last year, there were two big-time extensions given to tight ends:

Dallas Goedert: Four years, $57 million ($14.25M/year)
Mark Andrews: Four years, $56 million ($14M/year)

Both of those players have been statistically better than Hockenson, and at the time their extensions were signed they were around the same age Hockenson would be this year. Again, because the market is constantly rising, it’s fair to say Detroit’s tight end could land a deal in the same neighborhood as both of those deals.

That’s a big commitment to Hockenson, who has been good, but possibly a little disappointing compared to his draft position.

An extension offers another important advantage: the Lions could actually clear up some cap space if they go that route. If Brad Holmes is looking ahead to the 2023 cap situation and doesn’t want Hockenson taking up $9.2 million in space, careful structuring of an extension could drop that 2023 number significantly. Looking at Goedert’s contract as an example, he’ll only cost the Eagles $3.8 million against the cap this year and $6.6 million next year. However, those numbers jump to over $19 million for the two years after that, and it would cost the Eagles a significant amount of dead cap to get out of those years.

In other words, it may actually be the cheaper option—in the short term—to sign Hockenson to an extension rather than use his fifth-year option. However, that would require serious confidence that Hockenson will be on the roster for at least the next three or four years.

Are you finally going to answer the question?

Yeah, yeah.

Hockenson is not a top-tier tight end in the league right now, but the man has also gone through a bit of turbulence early in his career. He’s caught passes from six different quarterbacks and gone through multiple offensive coordinators as well as a full coaching staff change. Plus, the kid is still just 24 years old.

I’m not ready to hand him a hefty extension, even though the cost of that extension could theoretically go up next season. His play needs to be better, and an injury-free season would do a lot to instill some long-term confidence.

Exercising Hockenson’s fifth-year option is a no-brainer, though. It matches the value the Lions have gotten out of him thus far, and if he balls out in 2022, you still have a full year to work out a new deal.

Poll

Should the Lions exercise T.J. Hockenson’s fifth-year option?

This poll is closed

  • 63%
    Yes
    (1897 votes)
  • 3%
    No
    (107 votes)
  • 33%
    Give him an extension, instead
    (993 votes)
2997 votes total Vote Now