Detroit Lions observations: T.J. Hockenson headed for big 2021 season

Detroit Free Press

T.J. Hockenson will not play a down this preseason, but judging by Monday’s practice, the Detroit Lions’ third-year tight end already is in regular season form.

Hockenson was one of the standouts of a short practice that Lions coach Dan Campbell used to give reps to players who  didn’t play or played sparingly in last week’s preseason loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The practice consisted of a short walk-through and a long series of one-on-one drills, where Hockenson caught four of the five passes thrown his way, drew a probable defensive pass interference penalty on the fifth and showed some of the route-running savvy that made him a Pro Bowler a season ago.

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“He’s always got a plan when he goes up to the line of scrimmage,” Lions tight ends coach Ben Johnson said after practice. “He’s thinking, ‘Hey, I want to sell this, so that I can get this.’ Or, ‘I want to manipulate this defender by doing this, so I can beat him here.’ And so, it’s fun because he’s now, rather than worrying about the depth or route, maybe, ‘What do I need to do at the top?’ Now it’s, ‘Man, how can I really expose this defender and use it to my advantage?’ So he’s taken some great strides in that department.”

Hockenson set career-highs with 67 catches for 723 yards and six touchdowns last season, and should have no problem shattering those marks if he stays healthy this year.

Wearing a red jersey in practice as he returns from the undisclosed injury he suffered two weeks ago, Hockenson ran a beautiful route to uncover from Dean Marlowe on one of his one-on-one snaps, selling an out at the goal line and ducking back inside for an easy catch.

He beat Bobby Price with a nice stutter-step move earlier in the drill and got Marlowe two other times for touchdowns. On his last snap, Hockenson beat Marlowe for another would-be catch on the far sideline, but was mugged before he could secure the ball.

Hockenson, who missed the Lions’ first two preseason games with injury, said after practice he does not feel like he needs any snaps in this week’s exhibition finale against the Indianapolis Colts to be ready for Week 1.

“I mean, I didn’t have any last year so I think I’m all right,” he said. “I think that’s kind of the name of the game is just when you’re out here competing like it’s a game rep and competing against your (teammate) like you’re about to play a game. I’m not real worried about that. I just got to come out against San Fran and play well and I think that’s all of our mindset right now.”

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While Hockenson already has established himself as one of the best receiving tight ends in football, Johnson said he sees Hockenson being an even more complete player this fall.

“I’ve been really impressed with where he’s at in terms of the mastery of the offense right now,” Johnson said. “He understands the big picture right now more than he ever has. Run game wise, ‘Hey, the line’s working here and, OK, that makes sense, where are we trying to hit this ball?’ Those sorts of things. So he’s taken a step from Year 2 to 3 just in terms of his knowledge of the offense and what we’re intending to do with each play call.”

More observations from Monday

• As mentioned, Monday’s practice was unusual as the Lions are trying to balance getting their key players the work they need to get ready for the 49ers, and preparing everyone else for Friday’s final preseason game.

Just 17 defensive players practiced, including three inside linebackers (Jamie Collins, Alex Anzalone and Tavante Beckett) and five defensive backs (Marlowe, Price, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Alijah Holder and Corn Elder).

• Swing tackle Tyrell Crosby, who has been out since early August with a strained hamstring,  didn’t take part in the formal part of practice but was on the field for walk-through and did do side work with trainers. He probably isn’t quite ready for preseason action yet, but that’s not a bad thing. The Lions could use more reps for Tommy Kraemer, Matt Nelson, Evan Heim and others to make evaluations before next week’s cut to a 53-man roster.

• I wrote a little about the Breshad Perriman dilemma the Lions are facing on Monday, and Perriman certainly didn’t do anything to help his chances of making the team in practice. I saw him take two one-on-one reps. He dropped what should have been an easy catch on his first rep, and couldn’t get separation from Price, the converted safety, on his second.

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Tyrell Williams, Kalif Raymond and Amon-Ra St. Brown are the Lions’ top three receivers, and Quintez Cephus appears to have passed Perriman on the depth chart. The Lions have another week to decide if Perriman (and the $2 million in guaranteed money they gave him this offseason) are worth holding onto, or if Tom Kennedy brings enough to the table as a No. 5 receiver and on special teams.

Here’s Campbell when I asked about Perriman before practice, and told him we haven’t seen much him yet.

“I think you’re on to something because I think it’s hard to say right now,” he said. “There just hasn’t been enough out there. He had the hip injury and then he comes back. He was solid the other night for the plays that he had, but yet he had an OPI (pass interference penalty), which he knows better than. He didn’t need to do that. His speed and the route is enough to where he would win on that. I think he’ll be better coming off of this hip, he kind of got a game under him, but I think that room right now is still up for grabs. I think there is a heavy competition going on in that room right now.”

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement for Perriman and his chances of making the team.

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• A couple other notes from Monday’s one-on-one sessions: The recently-signed Rashod Berry had an impressive pass rush rep against Taylor Decker, beating the left tackle with an inside speed rush early in the period. Berry got engulfed by Penei Sewell when he tried a spin move on the big right tackle later in the period. He’s a long shot to make the roster at this point, but he has some quick-twitch that will be worth evaluating against the Colts.

Sewell, who clearly still is getting used to his new position and life in the NFL, had a couple nice pass block reps Monday. He was able to anchor and defeat a Romeo Okwara long arm at the start of the drill and he ran Okwara wide on his final rep of the period.

Nick Williams showed off his power by knocking Halapoulivaati Vaitai off balance in their first rep against each other, John Penisini showed some surprising pass rush when he clubbed Heim to the ground on one rep, and Heim rebounded with a good rep against Alim McNeill.

On the receiving side of the drill, Raymond put Robey-Coleman on skates with a masterful up-and-out route, then Robey-Coleman won the rematch, blanketing Raymond for an interception. Collins appeared disinterested in trying to defend D’Andre Swift in their rep together, then tried harder when he forced an incompletion to Jamaal Williams later in the drill.

• The Lions have two more open practices this week, but must make their next roster cut, down to 80 players, by 4 p.m. Tuesday.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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