Matchup of former Iowa tight ends, both drafted in first round, likely on hold once again

Detroit News

Allen Park — It’s not exactly uncommon for a tight end to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, given it’s happened six times in the past decade. But two or more tight ends in the first round, now we’re getting into rarer air. That’s happened twice during the same stretch.

That makes what happened in 2019 unprecedented. Not only were a pair of tight ends selected in the first round, but both played for the same school, the University of Iowa.

On Sunday, those tight ends were supposed to share an NFL field for the first time, but just like the last time their teams matched up, it appears an injury will sideline the Detroit Lions’ T.J. Hockenson.

Selected No. 8 overall by the Lions in 2019, Hockenson has delivered on expectations for the franchise. A Pro Bowler in his second season, he currently leads the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

Unfortunately, Hockenson popped up on the injury report this week with a badly swollen hand. And despite no broken bones, at least according to player, he’s listed as doubtful for Sunday’s contest against the Denver Broncos after missing practice Thursday and Friday.

Noah Fant, back in 2019, came off the board 12 picks later to the Denver Broncos and has been equally as impressive through the better part of three seasons. He is presently on pace to post his best production in 2021, registering 49 receptions for 424 yards and three touchdowns in 11 games.

More: After rare fumble, Lions’ Williams unfazed as he looks to begin next lengthy streak

The pair are off to remarkably similar starts. At this early stage of their careers, Hockenson has just nine more catches, 14 more yards and three more touchdowns. You could almost consider it an echo of their daily competitions on the practice field while at Iowa.

“It was obviously a friendly competition every day walking into the building,” Hockenson said.

At some point, currently punctuated by Fant and Hockenson, Iowa became a tight end factory, overtaking the University of Miami, which produced four first-round talents from 2000 through 2007.

The tide has turned under coach Kirk Ferentz, starting with Dallas Clark, who was selected in the first round in the 2003 draft. From there, the school has sent several others to the NFL, including Tony Moeaki, C.J. Fiedorowicz and George Kittle, a two-time All-Pro who has been the best of the bunch.

“We do run a pro-style offense,” Hockenson said. “When I was there, they always taught us the concepts of stuff. Brian Ferentz was the offensive coordinator and he also coached tight ends, so it was one of those things he taught us not just what we had to do, but the whole concept and why (defenses) do different things and what different coverages they do those different things.

“Obviously, we had to block at Iowa and I think that translates into the NFL, just being able to block and being able to run a route and understand the concepts inside the playbook,” Hockenson continued. “I think they do a really good job.”

And it’s a tight-knit fraternity. Hockenson remembers Clark, who played close by in Indianapolis much of his career, regularly returned to campus to share his wisdom with the current Hawkeyes.

“When I was there, he was still coming in and teaching us things,” Hockenson said. “Just having guys that come back. I was able to be there with George, Noah, we were all in a room together and just being able to share that, it was a cool thing.

“I think the biggest thing is the relationships from Iowa don’t ever end at Iowa,” Hockenson said. “They always continue into the NFL or continue past that where it’s guys still texting each other. I’ll still hear from Dallas. I heard from Tony Moeaki a few weeks ago. Just random people, random tight ends, random guys that have come and gone, they still keep in touch and that’s a cool part about it.”

The Lions and Broncos last met during Hockenson and Fant’s rookie season, but Detroit’s tight end was on the shelf for that on after breaking his ankle.

Instead of moping at his misfortune, he used his down time at the end of that year to go back to Iowa for his rehab. While there, he was able to pay it forward like Clark and Kittle have done with him, spending time with Iowa’s current tight end, Sam LaPorta.

“I was able to help, talk to LaPorta, who is the tight end there now, and just be able to watch film with him and do some things,” Hockenson said. “That’s a place I’ll always be connected to, that I’ll always go back and help. When I’m done with my NFL career, I’m sure I’ll be back there a few times a year just to be able to hang out with the program.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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