ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- T.J. Hockenson always was going to make some sort of jump this season. As long as he stayed healthy, it was inevitable the Lions’ first-round pick last season was going to improve off of his rookie numbers.
What he showed in training camp told you that. What he showed in limited-by-injury action as a rookie suggested it. The reality of his position, which often sees production struggles in Year 1 before improvement in Year 2, was part of it.
And Hockenson’s growth has started to come. He leads the Lions in targets (26), receptions (17) and touchdowns (3). His 197 yards are third on the Lions behind Kenny Golladay and Danny Amendola -- and had Golladay been healthy the first two weeks of the season, he’d likely be ahead of Hockenson in targets, receptions and touchdowns, too.
But it shows where Hockenson is headed as a young player still growing into the offense and getting stronger -- maxing out at 415 on a front squat.
To expect Hockenson to become George Kittle or Travis Kelce overnight was not realistic. At tight end it’s often a slow build season to season. Especially in an offense where there is going to be a focus on the run and there are enough pass catchers that anyone not named Golladay is going to see some variation every week.
But there’s little question about what Hockenson’s role is in the Detroit offense. He’s a threat in the red zone, where he’s caught three touchdowns and been targeted on 31.8 percent of his red zone routes. That’s greater than his overall target share of 20.8 percent.
TE TJ Hockenson is emerging as a weaponpic.twitter.com/2FLpCQ2— Detroit Lions (@Lions) Oct. 21, 2020
“There are definitely plays that you need to capitalize on,” Hockenson said last month. “And win your route as a receiver.”
Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said he believes Hockenson’s progression last year was going well before his season-ending ankle injury stunted what he was able to do and changed his focus.
“Right now, I’m just looking for him to be more consistent, basically, down in and down out,” Bevell said. “If you watched this last game, probably one of his best games in terms of his overall blocking. I thought he really did a nice job there and took a step forward.
“But still I think there’s some things in the pass game that we’re looking for him -- to continue to gain some separation and kind of come through with some big plays for us.”
Bevell said he believes Hockenson is one of Detroit’s “go-to” guys; they are trying to create chances for him throughout the field, not just the red zone where he’s been particularly effective.
Of the 26 times he’s been targeted this season, seven have come in the red zone (26.9 percent), and it’s an area Matthew Stafford clearly feels comfortable with him. That’s been a connection comfortable from even the start of Hockenson’s rookie season, where Stafford seemed to instinctually look his way in the red zone during training camp every day.
That’s continued to grow, through both in-game reps and practice when they can.
“There’s a lot of periods during practice where, maybe specials teams, where they’re not involved and the two of them will take some of that extra time to go work on the nuances of routes or reads, coverage looks and some gameplan stuff that we do in those situations,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said last month. “I think all just those extras that add up through the course of practice and being on the same page help during the game.”
Before the last two games, where the red zone targets have meant less yards per target for Hockenson – who in the first three weeks of the season had been more of a full-field threat, something Detroit needs to get back to with its emerging player.
He’s on pace for 55 catches, 630 yards and 10 touchdowns. Last season, among tight ends those numbers would have put him tied for 10th in catches with Hunter Henry, 10th in yards between Henry and Philadelphia’s Dallas Goedert and tied for the lead in touchdowns with Mark Andrews.
Those numbers would also compare favorably to the second season of Tony Gonzalez (59 catches, 621 yards, two touchdowns) and the man Hockenson ostensibly replaced, Eric Ebron (47 catches, 537 yards, five touchdowns). But it would put him well below the second years of Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski, Jason Witten, Kelce and Kittle.
But it’s a step -- one the Lions need Hockenson to continue to take in his evolution if Detroit’s offense is going to have sustained success.