In what was rather a chaos-infused campaign from the get-go, Detroit stumbled and crawled their way to their third consecutive under .500 campaign, ultimately leading to former head coach Matt Patricia’s dismissal following the Lions’ annual Thanksgiving appearance. Despite the negativity, drama, and criticism of play, there was, however, a flash of light in the darkness in the form of tight end T.J. Hockenson.
A bruising, yet smooth and agile athlete, Hockenson, the eighth overall selection in the 2019 draft, has begun to round into form. And despite the ongoing rebuild that is the Detroit Lions organization, Hockenson now eyes the 2021 season as a potential year of dominance with newly acquired signal-caller Jared Goff.
As the leader of the pack in Los Angeles, Goff was average, at best. Arm talent, of course, NFL-ready frame, okay, but the translation from the meeting room to the turf just never correlated, ultimately leading to the Rams’ decision to make a move for longtime Lions gun-slinger Matthew Stafford in exchange for the former 2016 No. 1 overall selection in Goff.
And although Goff has had both his flickers of brilliance and moments that make you scratch your head, when you microscope what Goff did do well in a Rams uniform and how it translates to Detroit, and specifically, Hockenson, there is room for optimism if you’re newly-minted head coach Dan Campbell.
As a 22-year old rookie in 2019, Hockenson was used as a customary aspect of the Lions’ offense. What I mean by that was Hockenson, a fantastic blocker and in-line mover while at Iowa, was used primarily as an extension of the offensive line to make room for Kerryon Johnson in the run game. And while those are expected duties for tight ends at the NFL level, selecting Hockenson in the top 10 to serve as an undersized tackle is just ludicrous.
2020 was a flip of the script.
The COVID-rattled campaign provided a glimpse into the elite ability Hockenson has as he looks to develop into one of the league’s top young weapons for a rather inept pass-catching unit in Detroit.
“The sky's the limit for this kid,” Lions tight end coach Ben Johnson recently said.
A Pro Bowl honoree in his sophomore campaign, Hockenson was an entirely different athlete in 2020, finishing in the top five among all tight ends in targets (101), receptions (67), and receiving yards (723), while tripling his touchdown total from just two in 2019 to six last fall. A contributing factor to his success was his ability to stay healthy, as Hockenson started all 16 games for the Lions after missing four games the season prior to a nagging lower-body injury.
Now working in tandem with Goff, who enjoyed success with tight ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett over the years in Los Angeles, the sky truly could be the limit for an all-around talent like Hockenson who is now the de facto target hog in what will be a trial-by-fire offense under new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn—who joins the Lions after four seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers in which he coached Hunter Henry into the talent Bill Belichick will look to deploy in New England.
Whether the Lions use multiple variations of 12-personnel (two tight-ends) like the Rams, including the usage of Hockenson at H-back to throw unique looks at opposing defenses, remains to be seen, but the floor of Hockenson’s success in a year where the Lions have absolutely everything to gain is substantial.
Gone are the talents in Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones to steal targets. The Lions are a one-man show in the passing game as we creep into training camp. With fresh faces in the front office, new voices in the locker room, and a shiny new talent under center, Hockenson’s rapid progression into one of the league’s premier tight end talents could enter warp speed as he approaches his third season in Detroit.