NFL 2020 Breakout Players: T.J. Hockenson

Introduction

TJ HockensonT.J. Hockenson came into the NFL with very high expectations. After a prolific career at Iowa, a school known for producing quality tight ends like George Kittle and Dallas Clark, Hockenson was drafted number 8 overall in 2019. Drafted for not only his ability to be a threat in the receiving game but also for his elite blocking ability, Hockenson looked like one of the best tight-end prospects of the past decade. However, these accolades came a boatload of pressure.
By the end of his rookie season, Hockenson was a disappointment. After a historic week one performance, Hockenson failed to make any type of impact in the passing game. An ankle injury in week 12 ended his disappointing season.

Despite his disappointing rookie season, Hockenson possesses all the same skills that made him such an elite prospect coming out of college. The tight end position is one of the hardest to learn and we’ve seen guys like George Kittle and Zach Ertz come out of nowhere after mediocre seasons. Hockenson’s all-around play makes him a prime candidate for a breakout season in 2020.

2019 Stats

GPRECREC YDSREC TDSY/C
1232367211.5

2019 was a struggle for Hockenson, to say the least. Coming into NFL with such high expectations, Hockenson actually set the bar even higher after a historic week 1 performance. Setting the tight end rookie receiving record with 6 receptions for 131 yards, Hockenson dominated the Cardinals defense. However, we never saw this Hockenson for the rest of the season. In fact, he only recorded more than 50 receiving yards once the rest of the season. Split between these performances were several duds including 5 games below 20 receiving yards.

To make a disappointing season even more disappointing, Hockenson suffered a season-ending ankle injury in week 12 after attempting to hurdle a defender. However, not everything was disappointing. While Hockenson underperformed in the passing game, he shined when blocking the run. Ranking 20th out of 79 eligible tight ends blocking the run, Hockenson shows huge promise. If he reaches his potential in the passing game, I can easily see him becoming a top 10 tight-end by the end of the season.

Player Skillset

Hockenson was lauded in college for his catching ability. Recording only two drops his entire career with the Iowa Hawkeyes, Hockeson was deemed to have exceptional hands. However, he hasn’t shown this same elite pass-catching ability in the NFL. Recording two drops in 12 games, as well as a few borderline drops (drops but not statistically registered as drops), Hockenson’s hands have become an additional concern. However, I contribute Hockenson’s struggles to the expectations given to him. Seen as a top 10 draft pick that was expected to produce right away, nerves may have accounted for these drops in key situations. Overall, I still think he has elite hands but is susceptible to mental lapses, primarily because of the pressure he faced. Coming into year two with low expectations, I except Hockenson to bounce back in a huge way.

Also, Hockenson hasn’t lost any of his athleticism after a down season. Hockenson had a successful NFL combine. He passed all the metrics used to forecast tight end success metrics including having a 40-time faster than 4.75, a broad jump of 110 inches or higher, a vertical leap of 32 inches or higher, and a height of at least 6-2.

Lastly, Hockenson was phenomenal at blocking the run, something that other young tight ends fail to do. Guys like Noah Fant, O.J. Howard, and David Njoku all rank in the bottom ten for run-blocking tight ends while Hockenson ranked 20th. His impressive ability to block the run him plenty of opportunities to be on the field. Again, getting better at running routes and understanding the playbook, alongside the return of Stafford, should elevate his game.

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Depth Chart

The Lions offensive depth chart is strong. The offensive line remains at least average to potentially above average depending on the play of free-agent acquisition Vaitai. Furthermore, guys like D’Andre Swift and Kerryon Johnson make an intriguing running back duo that can both catch out of the backfield. The wide-receiver corp is strong with perennial top-ten receiver Kenny Golladay and the ever-reliable target Marvin Jones. If everyone stays healthy, this offense could be top-ten with Hockenson a beneficiary of its success.

Detroit Lions Offense

The Detroit Lions offense should bounce back to being above average after Matthew Stafford returns. The veteran pro-bowler struggled with injuries only playing eight games the entire season. This should benefit all parties, T.J. Hockenson included. Being able to develop that chemistry with Stafford after a second season should improve his numbers.

In addition, the Detroit Lions offense is more balanced than ever before. In Stafford’s eight games, he threw over 30 passes every game. The lack of a running game forced the team to be one-dimensional and focus exclusively on the passing game. This lack of a run allowed opposing defenses to drop out in coverage, which clogged the middle – an area Hockenson thrived with Iowa. However, the Lions added D’Andre Swift in the first round. With the already quality running back Kerryon Johnson, the Lions offense looks very explosive in both the running in the passing game. I expect Matt Patricia to focus more on creating a balanced offense, which will indirectly benefit Hockenson’s production.

Schedule

Hockenson had his best game against the Falcons and Raiders, teams with poor pass defenses in 2019. Opportunities will exist in 2020 for Hockenson. These include matchups against the Cardinals, Colts, Jaguars, Texans, Falcons, Panthers, Buccaneers, and Washington. However, Hockenson plays in the NFC North, a conference with great pass defenses. The Bears and Packers will make life difficult on a pure coverage level while the Vikings effectively neutralized Hockenson with star safety Harrison Smith. Despite the tough division, Hockenson has a boatload of opportunities to put up huge numbers. I am excited to see Hockenson go to work.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Hockenson’s down can be attributed to pressure and the difficulties of playing the tight-end position. As a top-ten pick and unanimously named perennial pro-bowler, Hockenson had very high expectations. These became even higher after a prolific first game of the season. However, Hockenson struggled afterward, most importantly, with his mental game. Playing one of the most difficult positions in the game only amplified these mental struggles. Yet, Hockenson maintains his physical traits and showed brief flashes of excellence. I think with fewer injuries to key offensive players, a balanced offensive scheme, an offseason to improve chemistry, and lowered expectations will improve Hockenson’s play on the field. I’m expecting Hockenson to go from the bottom third of tight ends to top ten status by the end of the season.

  
Miles Jasper is an incoming law student studying employment and labor law. Miles’ passions lie within the salary cap, collective bargaining, and labor relations between leagues and their players. He also likes to analyze college prospects and participate in fantasy sports. In his free time, Miles is an avid runner who also enjoys poker, cooking, and watching movies.

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