Detroit Lions: T.J. Hockenson needs to prove he’s a difference maker

(Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images) /

When healthy, Detroit Lions’ tight end T.J. Hockenson adds an extra dimension offensively. The problem; he’s struggled to remain healthy on a consistent basis.

The Detroit Lions spent a premium draft choice on the Hockenson when they drafted him eighth overall out of Iowa, a.k.a ‘the tight end factory’ back in 2019. Hockenson joins a fantastic group of NFL tight ends that joined the league via Iowa, including George Kittle and Noah Fant.

The one issue here is that Hockenson has performed more like Fant but was drafted to be Kittle.  For the record, Kittle was drafted by the 49ers in the fifth round, Fant was selected 20th overall in 2019.

Hockenson has amassed 1,673 receiving yards in three years of work on 160 receptions and totaled 12 touchdowns over 40 games. In comparison, Fant has totaled 1,905 yards and ten touchdowns over his first three seasons.

Of course, Hockenson is more than just a weapon in the passing game similar to Kittle; in the past, he’s proven to be a tremendous run blocker.

Hockenson recorded a run-blocking rate of 60.8 as a rookie and followed it with an excellent 70.9 mark in his second year. This past season though, Hockenson struggled as a run blocker according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), earning a career-worst 45.1 grade in this category. To give you a comparison, Kittle’s worst run-blocking grade of 61.7 came in his rookie season. This past year the sensational tight end earned a 73.3 grade, to go with his overall grade of 90.7, which is elite.

Hockenson earned an overall grade of 68.1 this past season after hauling in 61 balls totaling 583 yards and four touchdowns in 12 games. Although Hockenson’s yards per catch were down about 1.2 yards from last season, his stellar catch rate of 72.6% was by far the best of his career.

The Detroit Lions hope T.J. Hockenson can remain healthy and turn the corner as a difficult decision looms.

Hockenson is set to enter the fourth year of his career, and the Detroit Lions will undoubtedly be quick to pick up his fifth-year team option that is granted to every player selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Beyond that, his future with the Detroit Lions should be in serious doubt.

Hockenson dealt with a concussion and ankle injury that limited him to 12 games as a rookie. He followed that up by appearing in all 16 games in 2020 but fell back to 12 contests this past season after being shut down due to a hand injury.

There is a lot to like; I envision a healthy Hockenson paired with this tremendous offensive line, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and whoever the organization drafts or signs in free agency as an outside threat. There is a foundation in place of a future top-12 offense; the Lions are just missing a few pieces.

As Hockenson prepares for free agency ahead of the 2024 NFL season, he will be in line for a significant raise, but is that something Brad Holmes and the Lions be willing to do?

Although the Detroit Lions drafted Hockenson to be the next Kittle or Travis Kelce, Spotrac predicts he will be paid comparable to Hunter Henry, Dallas Goedert, Austin Hooper, and Mark Andrews. Unless he records back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons before he hits the open market, I’d suspect the 12.4 million annual salary Spotrac is predicting seems about right.

On the flip side, if Hockeson can’t remain healthy and averages somewhere between 500-700 receiving yards with less than impressive blocking marks, he will be a candidate to sign elsewhere. The Detroit Lions will be able to replace that production at a far cheaper rate.

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A few veteran players set to hit the open market simultaneously as Hockenson are Noah Fant, Tyler Higbee, Cameron Brate, Nick Boyle, Cole Kmet, and Hunter Henry.