Why T.J. Hockenson figures to be a big part of the Detroit Lions offense in 2021

In Anthony Lynn's offense, tight end T.J. Hockenson has the potential to put up impressive numbers. Norm Hall/Getty Images

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Anthony Lynn has still been settling into his role as the Detroit Lions' offensive coordinator, but he’s already seen enough of one of his future players to get a sense of how good he can be.

Lynn has spent time digging into the game of Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson, who had 67 catches for 723 yards and six touchdowns last season. Lynn believes Hockenson will continue to grow, an ascent that already has made him one of the NFL’s Top 10 tight ends.

“T.J. did some nice things last year and I think his ceiling is even higher,” Lynn said. “I know he made the Pro Bowl and all that, but he can play even better and that was the encouraging part. I like what I saw on tape.”

Lynn’s offense has a chance to be very, very friendly for Hockenson. It’s in part due to the coordinator along with the expected starting quarterback, Jared Goff.

Lynn has a penchant for using his tight ends in advantageous positions. When Hunter Henry was healthy in Los Angeles, the Chargers went to him a lot -- 93 targets last season in 14 games along with a career-high 60 catches for 613 yards. Every year he was healthy under Lynn, Henry had at least 45 catches and 579 yards.

While those numbers might not sound like much, understand Henry has yet to play a full season with the Chargers, so those numbers are less than what they could be. When Henry missed the 2018 season, the combination of Virgil Green and a 38-year-old Antonio Gates managed to have 72 targets, 47 catches and 543 yards.

When Lynn coordinated Buffalo’s offense in 2016, Charles Clay had 87 targets, 57 catches and 552 yards.

Hockenson, possibly, could be better than all of them (taking Gates at his 38-year-old state and not his prime).

Lynn particularly likes a high-level tight end because of what it can mean for the rest of the offense he’s trying to build and call.

“It creates a very unique matchup because you have linebackers and safeties covering that guy and if he’s a stud, it’s going to be a long day for you,” Lynn said. “So if I force you to put a [defensive back] on that guy, then obviously you have a lighter box and you can run the football and you want to run the football into a lighter box.

“Not only does that help you in the passing game but it helps you in the run game.”

Does he see that type of ability from Hockenson? Lynn said he believes Hockenson can develop into that type of player.

When the Lions drafted Hockenson in the first round out of Iowa in 2019, he was considered one of the most ready-made tight ends coming into the NFL in a long time. His rookie season didn’t pan out, in part due to injury, but he blossomed his second year.

And with the Lions remaking their wide receiver room and Goff’s history with tight ends -- he’s completed 316 passes to tight ends in his career, including 194 of them over the past two seasons -- this could mean a lot of usage for Hockenson.

He’d be helped, too, by Lynn’s willingness to try whatever he needs to in order to win. He knows his reputation as a former running back and as a potential “ground-and-pound guy.” But his offenses in Los Angeles catered to the quarterback, Philip Rivers and then Tyrod Taylor and Justin Herbert last season, which meant having a stronger passing offense.

Lions head coach Dan Campbell told ESPN he believes he and Lynn have similar visions. They both believe there’s a toughness in running the ball and they’ll find ways to do that. But above all, it’s about matchup exploitation.

“If you’re not going to take our X [receiver] out of the game, and you’re going to play off eight yards and you’re telling me we can throw hitches the whole game and let him run, then we’re going to throw it out there,” Campbell said. “We’re not so far into the Stone Age to where it’s like we’re going to run it 40 times and bah, bah, bah, bah. In that regard, we think a lot alike.”

With Kenny Golladay’s return to the Lions unknown, Hockenson becomes the team’s most intriguing passing option along with running back D’Andre Swift. Lynn said Swift “can be a three-down back” and believes he can be more involved in a passing attack.

It’s still too early -- and with too many holes -- to truly know what Detroit’s offense will look like. But it seems to be clear Lynn is going to try and find matchups he likes. That means really good things for Hockenson.