T.J. Hockenson has been one of the NFL’s best tight ends when healthy the past three seasons.
The problem? Hockenson hasn’t been healthy enough.
Hockenson will spend the early part of the offseason rehabbing from season-ending surgery for the second time in three years.
As a rookie, he broke his ankle in a Thanksgiving loss to the Chicago Bears and spent the winter rehabbing at Iowa. This season, he underwent left thumb surgery in December.
“Obviously, that’s not how you want to end a season at any point in your career,” Hockenson said last week. “Now I’ve had two of them with my ankle and now this. It’s not something you want to endure and you want to go through. Obviously, I would have loved to have finished the season with the guys and the coaching staff and everybody, but that’s how it goes sometimes.”
MORE FROM BIRKETT: What NFL playoffs revealed about Matthew Stafford, Jared Goff and Lions’ future
Hockenson, who wore a brace on his thumb while meeting with reporters the day after the Lions’ 3-13-1 season ended with a win over the Green Bay Packers, said he expects to be 100% in the next few weeks and will be full-go when the Lions’ offseason program starts in April.
The Lions have counted on Hockenson to be a big part of their offense since making him the No. 8 pick of the 2019 draft, and Hockenson has posted solid numbers overall in his three NFL seasons.
He ranks 12th in receiving yards (1,675) and is tied for 10th in catches (160) and 11th in touchdowns (12) among all tight ends since 2019, and made his lone Pro Bowl last year.
While Hockenson’s production more closely resembles that of Dallas Goedert or Evan Engram, two more tight ends who’ve struggled with injuries, than it does All-Pros Travis Kelce, Darren Waller and Mark Andrews over that span, he still he seems poised to cash in on his upside soon.
[ Healthy Romeo Okwara, home run with No. 2 pick could give Lions menacing pass rush ]
The Lions have until May to exercise the fifth-year option on Hockenson’s rookie contract and could attempt to sign him to a long-term extension like they did center Frank Ragnow last spring.
Goedert, who has 160 catches for 1,961 yards and 12 touchdowns the past three seasons, signed a four-year, $57 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles in November.
Hockenson said he plans to spend the offseason in Nashville with his good friend George Kittle, where he will continue to train with some of the NFL’s other top tight ends.
A STAR IS BORN: T.J. Hockenson’s commercial cameo part of Lions’ new fun-loving atmosphere
“This year at the beginning of the year, it was the best I ever felt, best football that I thought I was playing, and so I’m just going to continue on that and continue to build,” he said. “It’s just day by day, week by week, just trying to get 1% better and I think that’s what we’re trying to do here, build that culture and then what obviously that builds with everybody.”
Hockenson finished this season with 61 catches for 583 yards and four touchdowns, just shy of the career-highs he set in every category in 2020 (67 catches, 723 yards, six TDs).
He got off to a fast start with eight catches and a touchdown in each of the Lions’ first two games, then struggled for a stretch amid constant double-teams.
The Lions had a more productive offense the second half of the season, when Dan Campbell took over play calling and Amon-Ra St. Brown emerged as a reliable receiver on the outside.
Hockenson, who watched most of that hot streak from the bench, said he is looking forward to teaming with St. Brown to make the Lions offense even more dangerous in 2022.
“He balled out,” Hockenson said. “I think that just opens up everybody. When a guy does something like that, now you have to worry about multiple people when everybody’s out there. So just opening it up and they can’t just (home) in on one guy, and so I think that’s going to be, obviously, an asset in the future and we’ll be able to continue to build on that.”
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.