| Detroit Free Press
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NFL tight ends regularly struggle as rookies.
The steep learning curve associated with a position that requires the physical challenges of blocking and pass-catching, plus the mental challenges of learning routes and blocking schemes can be daunting for anyone.
Add the expectations that come with players who are drafted high and it’s a recipe for struggles and disappointment.
Detroit Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson, the eighth overall pick in 2019, seems to have left a lot of his rookies issue behind him. He already has matched his touchdown total and reached nearly half the yardage production he had all of last year.
“I think the normal jump that you see from most first-year players to their second year has occurred for him,” Lions tight ends coach Ben Johnson said Monday in a conference call. “What it means to be a professional in this league and attacking each day with consistency. I think he’s done a nice job in that regard.
“I’ve been very pleased with his focus and his mentality and his mindset, really since camp started. It’s carried over to the season and got him off on the right foot here for the first four games. Really looking forward to taking that next jump here after the bye week.”
Hockenson showed up at training camp a changed man. He worked out with San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle in the offseason and packed on plenty of muscle. He also has carried himself more confidently and loosely while speaking with reporters.
“I definitely think there’s a comfort level to the point where he’s thinking less and now it’s just doing,” Johnson said. “Certainly coming out of college he showed all the traits you were looking for. That’s why he was a high draft pick.
“And now it’s just the thought has gone down and it’s allowed him to play faster and I think that’s what’s shown up this year. It’s been really encouraging.”
Statistically, the difference is stark. In 12 games last year, Hockenson had two touchdown catches, 367 receiving yards and a 54.2% catch ratio. In four games this year, he has two touchdowns catches, 180 yards receiving and a 75% catch ratio. He’s also the Lions’ receptions leader.
It hasn’t hurt Hockenson that the Lions have utilized fellow tight end Jesse James more. James, who didn’t have a touchdown catch last year, already has one and is averaging 14.8 yards per catch.
Johnson said he sees the potential for the expanded use of the tight ends as offensive weapons, but the group really just has one goal in mind.
“Yeah, there’s no doubt,” he said. “We’ll answer whatever bell is rung upon here for whoever we’re facing each week. And I think that’s the beauty of coach (Darrell) Bevell’s offense. It’s very difficult for a defense to home in on one position group and say, ‘I’m going to eliminate that position.’ So going into each week we don’t know if we’re going to have 150 yards as a group or we’re just going to have 20 yards as a group.
“But at the end of the day, I think they’re all on board that as long as we’re winning games and as long as we’re scoring points on offense, we’re good with it, whatever it takes to win right now. So really encouraged by the group and where they’re at right now.”
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