T.J. Hockenson 'Can Be Travis Kelce, George Kittle' For The Lions

With good health, he's poised to make a big leap in 2020.

Will Burchfield
June 22, 2020 - 3:54 pm
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We heard a lot about T.J. Hockenson's potential in the lead-up to last year's draft. We saw it, first-hand, in training camp and in his NFL debut. It went largely unfulfilled the rest of the year. 

Hockenson, whose season ended in Week 13 due to an ankle injury, wound up with a pedestrian stat line that left him outside the top 25 tight ends in football. And the Lions wound up with very little return on their investment at the tight end position in the 2019 offseason. 

But hopes remain high for Hockenson. Year two is typically when tight ends find their footing in the NFL, and Darrell Bevell and the Lions are committed to making Hockenson a bigger part of the offense this season. 

So here we are again, discussing his potential. 

"I think he can be a superstar," NFL analyst and former quarterback Chris Simms said on his podcast Chris Simms Unbottoned. "I saw enough from him last year to go, 'Wow, he can be Travis Kelce, George Kittle,' maybe more toward a George Kittle because he's a good blocker, too." 

That's a high bar, and reminiscent of the Rob Gronkowski comparisons Hockenson's drawn in the past. In the blocking department, at least, the Lions felt he lived up to the billing in 2019. 

“He’s a very explosive blocker,” tight ends coach Chris White said last season. "As far as coming off the ball and being aggressive and really getting on a guy quickly, he’s exactly what we thought when we drafted him.”

In the receiving department, the results weren't so rosy. Hockenson finished with 32 catches for 367 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games. That equates to about 43 catches for 490 yards over 16 games.

But this is where Kittle, at least, is a fair comparison. In his rookie season, the fellow Iowa product caught 43 passes for 515 yards and two touchdowns. Then he exploded in year two: 88 catches, 1,377 yards, five touchdowns and a trip to the Pro Bowl. 

Kelce's impact was more immediate. In his first full season (after missing all but one game as a rookie with a knee injury), he caught 67 passes for 862 yards and five touchdowns, numbers he replicated in year two. 

Just for fun, let's consider two more of the top tight ends in the game. 

Zach Ertz, the three-time Pro Bowler for the Eagles, caught 36 passes for 469 yards and four touchdowns in his first season, then jumped to 58 catches for 702 yards and three touchdowns the next year. 

And Baltimore's Mark Andrews made 34 catches for 552 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie in 2018, then leaped to 64 catches for 852 yards and 10 touchdowns and a Pro Bowl nod in 2019. 

The Lions can reasonably expect an Ertz/Andrews-like jump for Hockenson in 2020. It will certainly work to his advantage to have a full season with Matthew Stafford, assuming both stay healthy. 

Hockenson averaged more than twice as many yards per game and more than twice as many yards per target in eight games with Stafford under center last season, versus four games with Jeff Driskel and David Blough. This is part of the reason Simms said he wasn't underwhelmed, like other observers, by Hockenson's first-year performance. 

"He had that bad concussion (in Week 4) and then he had some underwhelming quarterback play to where I'd go, 'We can fu*king bring Rob Gronkowski out of retirement and he wouldn't have killed it last year at tight end for the Detroit Lions," said Simms. 

It wasn't just the situation under center. For all the progress the Lions made in the passing game last season, they failed to utilize their tight ends the way they'd hoped. Jesse James signed a $22 million deal with Detroit, then caught 16 passes in 16 games. 

Again, it's a focus of Bevell's to get the tight ends more involved this season. That bodes well for Hockenson, who still has the potential to be the game-changing weapon the Lions envisioned when they drafted him eighth overall. 

This is the year potential needs to yield production.