Sometimes a picture — even a digitized one on a Zoom chat — is worth a thousand words.
And the image of a trimmer but buffer T.J. Hockenson, sporting a backward cap, a scruffy beard and long, curly hair, sure did a lot of talking Monday.
The image the Lions tight end conveyed was a relaxed one, yet at the same time more focused after the first day of padded practice at training camp.
Hockenson spent last season trying to meet the expectations of being the eighth overall pick, then dealing with a concussion and a season-ending ankle injury.
This offseason, Hockenson did some training with his friend and former Iowa teammate George Kittle, a man-bun-wearing, two-time Pro Bowl tight end for the San Francisco 49ers who has made an art form of combining excellent play with a fun-loving attitude.
The training sessions were great, but Hockenson learned about enjoying the game from Kittle.
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“His persona about him, everything’s fun,” Hockenson said. “That was my biggest takeaway in the offseason hanging out with him is just have fun with it.
“We’re playing a child’s game and you sometimes take it for granted and take it too serious, but you’ve got to have fun and go out there and compete. I think that was the biggest thing I took away.”
When the 49ers signed Kittle to a $75 million deal last week, he again gave Hockenson a lesson on how to deal with success and expectations.
“I texted him and told him congratulations,” Hockenson said. “He sent me a little emoji with money bags, so it was kind of funny. No, he’s just a good guy. He really deserved that; paving the way for all of us younger tight ends.”
Kittle’s influence seems to be paying off. Last year, Hockenson was tentative and tight-lipped with reporters. He even turned down a final interview request as players cleaned out their lockers.
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On Monday, Hockenson seemed different. He spoke calmly and with a veteran’s ease. He even dropped a little inside nugget about how quarterback Matthew Stafford has rebranded finishing games as “dagger time.”
“He loves the game of football,” coach Matt Patricia said. “He’s a simple guy, just wants to go out and play ball and block and catch and you know, be a tight end. Those guys are a little bit different anyways. I think you can hopefully feel that from him, his excitement from that today.”
What’s maybe even more impressive about Hockenson’s changed demeanor is that he hasn’t had an easy offseason. He admitted his ankle “was kind of a challenge throughout the offseason.”
“The ankle’s still there, I still notice it,” he said. “But I’m getting there, I’m 100%. So I think that’s one of the things I’m trying to keep using. Sometimes guys after an injury come back and baby that. And that’s not something I want to do. It’s something I don’t want to even pay attention to and that’s what I’m getting towards.”
In July, he was placed on the NFL’s COVID reserve list for 10 days. He said Monday he was asymptomatic but struggled a little with the isolation while in quarantine.
“Pretty lonely really,” he said. “There wasn’t a whole lot going on.”
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Like almost every player in camp, Hockenson is optimistic at this time of the year. He feels encouraged with the offseason work he has done, especially working the mental side of the game to understand opposing defenses and his own offense better.
“Obviously coming into the year, you want to be better than the year before,” he said. “I think us as a team, as a tight end unit — I know you said you didn’t want it to be a team thing, but it’s hard to make individual goals without having the rest of the team involved. I think we all just want to go out there and play.”
Patricia also has noticed the difference in Hockenson, whose attitude and hirsute new look are easily appreciated by his coach.
“I think for him,” Patricia said, “he just feels like, ‘OK, you know what, I’m settled in. It’s the second year. Let me see if I can just try to get better. Let me see if I can improve and let’s just go have some fun.’
“So it’s good to see that. You can really tell on his face. Certainly, you know, his hair looks good. So he’s ready to roll.”
Contact Carlos Monarrez at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.