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 last fall, ultimately leading to former head coach Matt Patricia’s dismissal following the Lions’ annual Thanksgiving appearance. And while little has changed from an optics point-of-view, even with a new general manager, head coach, and quarterback in place, there has, however, been 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 the in-line talent Detroit hoped he would be coming out of Iowa. And despite the ongoing rebuild that is the Lions organization, Hockenson’s 2021 season thus far could serve as a stepping stool for years of high-end production down the road, whether he’s a Lion or not.
Second only to Kansas City’s Travis Kelce in targets (64) and receptions (48), Hockenson has been a revelation for a Lions offense that finds itself near the cellar of the league in every major offensive team category. With newly installed gun-slinger Jared Goff at the helm this fall, Detroit’s offense has offered a bit of a mixed bag to where it finds its consistent production from each week. While Hockenson leads the team in every stat imaginable from a pass-catching standpoint, second to him is running back D’Andre Swift, who’s filled the role of a pass-catching threat out of the backfield more so than one of head coach Dan Campbell’s primary boundary threats. Whether he aligns adjacent to the tackle, split-out to the boundary, or at H-back, Hockenson has proven to be a nightmare for defenses to cover, amassing 33 targets (24 receptions) in just the last three weeks alone.
A Pro Bowl honoree in his sophomore campaign, Hockenson was an entirely different athlete in 2020 after a rookie season that saw him work as nothing more than an extension of the line, 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. He’s been able to carry his momentum into 2021.
Hockenson’s future should surely be questioned in the Motor City considering the lack of future success the Lions could face under new management. Gone are the days of player loyalty and careers spent with one organization. Guys want rings, and as we saw with Matthew Stafford, whose career in Detroit lasted longer than anyone thought it would considering his game-changing ability and desire around the league for a true QB1, Hockenson could fall in the same boat as one of football’s rising tight end talents. Mediocrity has been an expectation for the Lions since the turn of the century. Despite the past talents of Calvin Johnson and Stafford, the Lions haven’t been able to grasp relevance in decades, regardless of the eye-popping individual talent at certain positions.
Despite the Lions currently finding themselves on a fast-track toward the No. 1 overall pick come April, Hockenson has proved to be a continued breath of fresh air for a franchise that’s been swallowed whole by the smoke radiating from its blazing dumpster fire.