What Was Cost For Lions Of Drafting Hockenson Eighth Overall?

To justify the pick, Hockenson needs to break out in 2020.

Will Burchfield
December 03, 2019 - 5:25 pm
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For a month or so, it looked like the Lions were onto something. They drafted T.J. Hockenson eighth overall, ignoring the conventional wisdom (and their own ugly history) about splurging on a tight end, then watched him flourish in training camp and pop off in his NFL debut. And then it all caught up to them.

Hockenson was a non-factor for most of his rookie season, which came to a disappointing end on Monday when he was placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury.

His final stat line: 32 catches, 367 yards, two touchdowns. His final stat line, excluding that record-setting debut: 26 catches, 236 yards, one touchdown. He’ll finish outside the top 20 tight ends in all three categories.

Friendly reminder: just one rookie has finished among the top 15 tight ends in receiving in the last five seasons (Evan Engram, 2017). This is how it goes.

The trouble in Hockenson’s case is that Detroit went all-in on him from the start. If he doesn’t break out in a big way in 2020, the ‘bust’ discussion begins in earnest. That’s what Bob Quinn, Matt Patricia and the Lions invited when they drafted a tight end – all together now! – eighth overall.

By the way, the stat line so far of fellow Iowa tight end Noah Fant, who went 20th overall to the Broncos: 31 catches, 379 yards, two touchdowns. The stat line of Irv Smith Jr., who went 50th overall to the Vikings: 28 catches, 267 yards, one touchdown. And the stat line of Dawson Knox (we’re cherry-picking now), who went 96th overall to the Bills: 25 catches, 307 yards, two touchdowns.

It’s always fun, and a little unfair, to revisit the draft several months later. It’s a little irresponsible, too, considering how much can change in the years ahead. By this time next season, we might be talking about Hockenson as one of the most complete tight ends in the NFL. Lions tight ends coach Chris White said Monday that Hockenson “graded out higher and higher each week” on the team's internal scale over the course of this season.

“He needs to just continue to learn football, he just started to figure it out,” said White. “He goes, ‘I thought I knew a lot coming out of Iowa,’ but he didn’t. And it’s like most kids, the tight end position, you need to know everything. The run game, the pass game, the protection game, the whole thing. You can’t just focus on one little thing. He learned that there’s a lot to this, so he’s got a lot of growth, just learning football.”

All that said, will the Lions regret the Hockenson pick in the end? Might they already? They passed on some potential difference makers on defense, and their own defense has been shockingly bad this year. Maybe, had the Jags not snagged Josh Allen at No. 7, the Lions would have taken the edge rusher from Kentucky who’s on pace for 12 sacks as a rookie.  

But it feels like they were set on Hockenson all along, which has left them here, hoping against hope that he proves them right. If he doesn’t – and we’re talking multiple Pro Bowls here – they’ll have to hope instead that the players taken after him don’t become stars. (But of course they will.) Here are the first five.

No. 9: Ed Oliver, DT, Buffalo

After a slow start to the season, Oliver has come alive. He has five sacks to his name, including four in the Bills’ last three games, plus a couple passes defended and a forced fumble. He would have aided a defensive line in Detroit that has vastly underachieved, specifically a pass rush that almost never gets home. Some felt the Lions hit the jackpot when Oliver slipped to No. 8 – they felt better about Hockenson.  

No. 10: Devin Bush, LB, Pittsburgh

Already sold on Hockenson, the Lions reportedly turned down multiple offers for the eighth pick. One has to believe the Steelers, who were eager to move up from No. 20 to take Bush, were among the teams that called. Pittsburgh ultimately reached a deal with Denver, who 10 picks later wound up taking Fant – and secured another second-rounder and a 2020 third-rounder for its troubles.

Bush, by the way, has the speed and explosiveness that Detroit’s linebacker corps is clearly missing. His 86 tackles rank first among rookies. Lions’ second-rounder Jahlani Tavia has 39 tackles, albeit in less playing time.

No. 11: Jonah Williams, G, Cincinnati

The first offensive lineman off the board, Williams will not play this season due to shoulder surgery. Who knows what he’ll look like in 2020. The Lions were linked to Williams before the draft, and given the unconventional three-guard rotation they’ve used for most of the season, it’s easy to see why.

No. 12: Rashan Gary, DL/LB, Green Bay

It never really felt like Gary was destined for Detroit, and the Lions were probably wise to steer clear. The concerns about his lack of production at Michigan have carried over into the NFL, as Gary has just 13 tackles and one sack through 12 games. He’s still full of upside, but so is every first-rounder less than a year after the draft. Hard to imagine the Lions seriously regretting this one.   

No. 13: Christian Wilkins, DL, Miami

Part of that vaunted defensive line at Clemson that produced three first-round picks in 2019 – along with Lions’ fourth-rounder Austin Bryant – Wilkins has made a pretty smooth jump to the NFL. He leads rookie defensive linemen with 44 tackles; Trey Flowers leads Detroit’s defensive linemen with 39 tackles. Wilkins, who has a face-of-the-franchise feel for the Dolphins, could have helped plug the Lions’ leaky run defense, which remains a question mark for 2020.

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Of those five, it’s safe to say the Lions would have had more use this season for Oliver and Wilkins than they did for Hockenson. We'll see how that shakes out moving forward. And in the case of Bush and the Steelers, the Lions’ tunnel vision on a luxury item likely cost them a chance to move back and collect more picks. If they were so bullish on a tight end, they still could have grabbed Fant, in all probability, at No. 20.

In the end, Detroit’s biggest miss may have been on defensive end Brian Burns, who went No. 16 to the Panthers. While he’s slowed down in the second half, Burns has 5.5 sacks through 12 games. Like Oliver, he could have provided a boost to the Lions’ feeble pass rush.

This is all a roundabout way of reaching a well-known conclusion: tight ends are rarely worth a first-round pick. They have to overcome a steep learning curve to make an immediate impact, and then they have to produce at an elite level, at a position where very few elite players exist, to provide commensurate value. How many tight ends in the NFL would be worth a first-round pick right now? Two? Maybe three? There’s Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz and George Kittle, and then there’s basically everyone else.

Hockenson was never expected to separate himself in his first season, even if his debut suggested otherwise. It didn’t happen right away for Kelce, Ertz or Kittle, either. But he has to start standing out in year two, or Quinn and the Lions will be staring down the barrel of a blown opportunity. In some ways, this was Quinn's go-for-broke move. He took Detroit's highest draft pick in six years and invested it in a stock rife with red flags. That's how a GM, one with an already spotty draft record, puts his job on the line. 

What would constitute meaningful progress next season for Hockenson? Somewhere from 60-70 catches, 700-800 yards and a handful of touchdowns. That's Kelce/Ertz territory in year two. We're not just talking about receiving numbers, either. Hockenson needs to prove he can be a three-down tight end, as dominant as a run blocker as a pass catcher. The Lions raved about his blocking skills after they drafted him, and, whatever it looked like to the naked eye, they like how he performed in this regard as a rookie.  

“He’s a very explosive blocker,” said White. “He made some blocks (last) Thursday that were very impressive. 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.”

Maybe so. But the red zone threat? The vertical weapon? The receiver who makes every contested catch? We’ve yet to see these versions of Hockenson, outside of his historic debut. He’s done for 2019. 2020 will be here soon, and then the clock will start ticking. If Hockenson was worth that pick, his game better start clicking.