Record wise, there wasn’t much of a difference between the way the Detroit Lions started their seasons in 2021 and 2022. The rebuild was evident as the losses piled up, and through their first seven games of last season, Detroit’s 1-6 record was an indictment of a young roster still finding its footing—and the front office and coaching staff figuring out just how much talent it had to work with.
The Lions found themselves at a crossroads before last year’s trade deadline with one of the few premier talents on their roster, tight end T.J. Hockenson. A draft pick of the former regime, Hockenson arrived with lofty expectations, billed as an “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. Hockenson’s ability as a receiver earned him a Pro Bowl nod in 2020, but his career was still predicated on his potential to become a difference-maker in all phases.
In 2022, during that 1-6 start to the season, Hockenson was one of the top receivers among tight ends in the NFL. He was seventh in yards per route run (1.87), second in yards per reception (15.2), and t-fourth in touchdowns (3). For a team without much top-end talent to speak of by Week 8, the prospect of trading Hockenson seemed like a double-edged sword: recoup some draft capital to help push along the rebuild, but in doing so, trade away one of the top contributors on offense who is among the best at his position.
The Lions ultimately decided to pull the trigger, dealing Hockenson and a pair of fourth-round picks in consecutive drafts (2023, 2024 conditional) to the division rival Minnesota Vikings for a 2023 second-round pick and a 2024 third-round pick. The return fit with the intentions of a team still situated in a rebuild, but for a former eighth overall pick who was still incredibly productive and maybe hadn’t quite realized his potential just yet, it seemed like the Lions rebuild might be further behind.
Fast forward to an 8-2 finish to the season and the Lions clearly weren’t worse for moving on from Hockenson. With the Vikings, Hockenson capped off the most productive year he’s had in his NFL career, hauling in 60 catches for 519 yards and three touchdowns in just 10 games with Minnesota, and setting single-season highs in catches (86), receiving yards (914), and first downs (44).
Detroit exercised his fifth-year option ahead of the 2022 season before they traded him, but while he’s under contract for 2023, Hockenson is looking to be paid for his upturn in production. According to Diana Russini, senior NFL insider for The Athletic, Minnesota and Hockenson have been working on an extension, but both parties are “far apart” on a deal, likely because Hockenson wants to “reset the market with a historic contract extension for tight ends.”
It’s no surprise to hear the Vikings and Hockenson are at odds with a contract if he’s looking to reset the tight end market. He’s dealt with various injuries in his NFL career that caused him to miss nine games in his three-and-a-half seasons with Detroit, and most recently, an ear infection and back soreness that’s limited him in practice this offseason. And while Hockenson has posted impressive receiving numbers, he did have a couple of seasons where drops were an issue. In 2020, he had a 9.5 percent drop rate, the sixth-worst figure among tight ends with at least 60 targets, and in 2022, a 6.5 percent drop rate, t-seventh worst among tight ends.
Lions general manager Brad Holmes’ decision to trade Hockenson is one of the better moves he’s made in his tenure. Not only did he improve his draft standing, but Holmes also freed up $9 million in cap space this offseason that’s allowed him to be more aggressive in addressing other areas of need on the Lions roster. On top of that, Holmes avoided this contract situation the Vikings are currently embroiled in with a tight end who has yet to put together the multi-faceted aspect of his game as a receiver and a blocker—Hockenson finished 101st and 49th in run blocking grade per Pro Football Focus in 2021 and 2022 respectively. Measured against other wideouts, his numbers are middling as a receiver, but expecting a deal that would reset the tight end market is a fiasco Holmes strategically avoided, granting him the flexibility to prioritize re-signing foundational pillars of the football team he’s building—not the one Bob Quinn and Co. left him.