Some of the NFL’s best tight ends made major strides in their sophomore campaigns. Can T.J. Hockenson follow suit for the Detroit Lions?
In his first NFL game in the 2019 season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, T.J. Hockenson burst on the scene with a record-setting debut. The first-round tight end recorded six receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown for the Detroit Lions in Week One.
After Hockenson’s production waned throughout the rest of the year and he was shelved by an ankle injury for the final four games, the Lions are hoping he can follow in the footsteps of some of his celebrated peers in year two.
The Lions raised some eyebrows when they selected Hockenson eighth overall in the 2019 draft, the highest a tight end had been selected since Vernon Davis was chosen sixth overall by the Washington Redskins in 2006.
As tight ends tend to do, Davis endured a quiet rookie year, before making strides in his second campaign. He retired this past February after a rock-solid NFL career, including a Super Bowl victory in 2016.
Davis’ jump between his first two seasons pales in comparison though to some of the tight ends that entered the league in subsequent years. Included are arguably the two top current players at the position, both of whom played major roles in helping their teams reach the Super Bowl this past February.
A former teammate of Hockenson’s at the University of Iowa, George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers was a little known prospect with middling athleticism and production in college, which caused him to slip to the fifth round as the ninth tight end selected in the 2017 draft.
Kittle’s mediocre rookie year gave way to an explosive follow-up season, in which he more than doubled his reception total and nearly tripled his receiving yardage. He is now viewed as one of the most complete players at his position and helped his team nearly win it all in February.
His counterpart in Super Bowl LIV, Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs, had his rookie season cut short almost before it even began. In 2013, Kelce was lost for the year after suffering a knee injury in his first game.
Still, Kelce was able to enjoy a monster second year, recording nearly 900 yards on almost 70 receptions with five touchdowns. He has turned into a physical force and one of the most devastating weapons for one of the league’s most dangerous offensive attacks. He scored a key touchdown in his team’s recent Super Bowl victory.
Let us not forget Mark Andrews of the Baltimore Ravens either. A third-round pick in 2018 (not even the first tight end selected by the Ravens that year), Andrews tacked on 30 more receptions and 300 receiving yards to his rookie totals this past season. He also became a major red-zone threat, hauling in ten touchdowns. He too was a major factor on a winning team; the Ravens led the NFL with 14 victories last season.
Of course, there is also the recently unretired Rob Gronkowski, whose reign as the most dominant tight end in league history remains unchallenged. He enjoyed a fine rookie season for the New England Patriots in 2010, topping 500 receiving yards and registering 10 touchdowns.
His play skyrocketed in 2011 though, when Gronk surpassed 1,300 yards through the air and led the NFL with 17 scoring grabs. After a brief one-year hiatus, he has joined his old quarterback pal Tom Brady with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to continue terrorizing opposing defenses in 2020.
So what does this all mean for Hockenson? Unfortunately, his development could be hindered by the NFL’s ongoing “virtual” offseason, in which teams are currently prohibited from gathering en masse at their respective facilities due to the global health crisis. Also, whenever the 2020 season begins, he is likely slated to be the Lions’ third receiving option behind established wideouts Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones, at least at the outset.
Regardless, the precedence is there for Hockenson to take a big step in year two, and he has the talent to reach that next level. The Lions wouldn’t have drafted him where they did if they didn’t believe he could become that kind of player.
The aforementioned tight ends are some of the most valuable offensive playmakers in football, and each of them is among the most important players on their team, some of the best squads in the league. If Hockenson can follow their lead in his second season, the Lions could boast one of the most dangerous offensive units around.