If this Detroit Lions team has a relative strength, it’s expected to be their offense—and for good reason. The offensive line has earned a reputation for being one of the up-and-coming units in the NFL, and there are more than a few people who think they’ll be one of the best groups this season. Brad Holmes added more playmakers at wideout—signing D.J. Chark in free agency and then moving up in the draft to select Jameson Williams—to bolster a skill position group that already included rookie sensation Amon-Ra St. Brown and dynamic running back D’Andre Swift.
But perhaps the biggest asset to this Lions offense, and one of the key players integral to unlocking Detroit’s potential this season, is a player who splits his time between the offensive line and out wide as a receiving threat.
Let’s take a closer look at T.J. Hockenson—one of the most promising and dynamic tight ends in the NFL—for the next installment of our roster preview.
Previously: QB Jared Goff, RB Godwin Igwebuike, RB Jermar Jefferson, RB Jamaal Williams, WR Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR Quintez Cephus, TE Brock Wright, G Jonah Jackson, EDGE Charles Harris, DT Michael Brockers, LB Derrick Barnes, CB Jeff Okudah, S DeShon Elliott.
Expectations heading into 2021
Ever since the previous regime made the decision to draft T.J. Hockenson eighth overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, expectations were immediately high for the “ascending talent with a chance to become one of the best all-around tight ends in the game,” according to NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein during the pre-draft process.
Holmes did what he could on a tight budget to replenish a Lions receiving core that lost their top three wideouts in Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola in the offseason. However, even after adding the likes of Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman, and Kalif Raymond, it was clear the team’s best offensive threat was Hockenson. Developing chemistry with Jared Goff, the team’s new quarterback, felt like an important step in order for this offense to be successful, but Goff had yet to target a tight end more than 62 times in a season, playing with guys like Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee in Los Angeles.
Hockenson, on the other hand, was coming off a career season in which he earned Pro Bowl honors after catching 67 passes for 723 yards and six touchdowns. And while his receiving stats took the kind of jump many were hoping they would, his performance in the blocking phase left a lot to be desired considering how he was touted as a complete tight end coming out of Iowa.
As the de facto No. 1 receiving threat heading into 2021, all eyes would be on Hockenson to take his game to yet another level in all respects.
Actual role in 2021
2021 stats: 12 games (12 starts): 84 targets, 61 receptions, 583 receiving yards, four touchdowns.
PFF grade: 68.1 (15th out of 44 qualifying tight ends)
- 73.6 receiving grade (10th out of 44)
- 65.4 pass blocking grade (40th out of 85)
- 45.1 run blocking grade (81st out of 85)
By Week 2, the Lions receiving corps was in shambles. Tyrell Williams was out with a concussion that would prevent him from playing for the rest of the season and Breshad Perriman was cut before the season even got off the ground. Hockenson immediately became the No. 1 option for this offense, earning 62 targets before the bye week—with at least eight targets in six of the first eight games in 2021.
Phenomenal touch on this TD pass by Jared Goff, and T.J. Hockenson showed great concentration to reel it in— Erik Schlitt (@erikschlitt) September 21, 2021
Hockenson was shouldering a heavy workload as the Lions were attempting to build the proverbial plane in the air on offense in this regime’s first season. As Detroit’s primary receiving threat, and the Lions finding themselves playing from behind in most games, Hockenson was blocking less often than he had in his first two seasons—35.7 block percentage in 2021 per PFF—and thus, getting fewer opportunities to prove himself as a blocker.
Unfortunately for Detroit and their top receiving threat, Hockenson’s season was cut short after suffering a thumb injury in Week 13 against the Minnesota Vikings landed him on the injured reserve list. While the season had been effectively over for weeks, Detroit’s offense underwent a transformation for the better in terms of productivity and efficiency down the stretch with Ben Johnson at the hip of Dan Campbell, and in hindsight, not getting an extended look at how Hockenson would fit into the mix was disappointing.
Outlook for 2022
Nearing the end of his rookie contract, the Lions decided to exercise the fifth-year option of Hockenson’s contract back in April to keep the team’s top tight end in Detroit through the 2023 season. Whether or not a contract extension happens before the season remains to be seen, but E$PN’s Jeremy Fowler stoked the flames earlier this month when he stated that the Lions are “expected to prioritize” a contract extension with Hockenson this summer.
Working out a contract to keep Hockenson in Detroit beyond next season sounds like it’s a priority of the organization, and with his best play still potentially left to come, the Lions have incentive to get a deal done before that breakout. Meanwhile, Hockenson could be inclined to go out and prove he’s worth much more than what Detroit is willing to offer him at this point. Still, those high expectations of being a top-10 pick remain, and Hockenson has yet to put it all together as he enters his fourth season—something Campbell admitted during OTAs.
“He’ll tell you that, too, that he’s still got room to grow even in there, in the run-blocking for us,” Campbell said. “I think he takes that next step on top of continuing to improve in the pass game.”
At the same time, Campbell knows just how unique Hockenson is at the tight end position, and acknowledged players like him aren’t easy to find.
“Here’s the beauty of Hockenson,” started Campbell, “and I’ve said this before: he’s a guy who’s a willing blocker and has the ability to win a one-on-one matchup in the pass game. So, when you have that ability and you’re willing to get in there and mix it up in the run game, that’s a good thing.”
Regardless of whether or not an extension gets hammered out prior to the start of this season, all signs point to this year being an important one for Hockenson. With the offensive weapons brought in this offseason, Detroit’s offense looks to be more diverse and less predictable, taking some of the eyes and focus off of Hockenson. It’s now on Hockenson to finally solidify himself and prove he belongs with the top tier of tight ends in the NFL.