Allen Park — A year ago, Detroit Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson was threatening to set the franchise’s single-season records for receptions and receiving yards for his position, at times on pace to snag 100 balls.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. The chase to pass Brandon Pettigrew’s marks of 83 catches and 777 yards was derailed by a season-ending thumb injury in Week 12, leaving Hockenson well short of rewriting the team’s record books.
Still, it felt like delaying the inevitable. Coming off a Pro Bowl season in 2020, and barely 25 years old, there’s never been any reason to think Hockenson’s best football isn’t ahead of him. And with former position coach Ben Johnson being named offensive coordinator this offseason, 2022 seemed as good a time as any to knock Pettigrew from his perch.
But despite the fact Johnson has Detroit’s offense humming to start the season, ranking near the top of the league in both yards and points, Hockenson’s invite to the party appears to have gotten lost in the mail. Through three games, he’s playing the highest percentage of snaps of his career, but he’s recorded just 10 catches for 82 yards, leaving him with the worst per-game production of his career.
“I’m sure he was hoping to have a little more targets, some more catches so far this season, but as I’ve explained to the whole unit, we have a lot of weapons in that room right now,” Johnson said when asked about Hockenson’s depressed production. “Some weeks, some guys may get 10 catches and 100-plus yards and multiple touchdowns. Other weeks, that same guy might get two targets and 16 yards. That’s the way this thing goes. It’s not like we’re deliberately going in each week and not trying to get him the football. Each guy, they have their plays, whether the defense allows us to take those, or we have to keep progressing, the quarterback’s going to take what the defense gives him.”
Johnson hits on an important point. The Lions do have more established weapons this year. In addition to signing wide receiver DJ Chark in the offseason, Josh Reynolds has been fully integrated into the scheme after being claimed off waivers midseason in 2021, plus Amon-Ra St. Brown has continued to build off his strong finish from last season, when he surged across the finish line while Hockenson was out with injury.
Still, even knowing all that, the lack of catches for Hockenson, a year removed from being Jared Goff’s go-to option in the passing game is surprising.
Johnson said Hockenson is handling these early bumps well, and the coordinator has continuously praised the entire offense’s selflessness in pursuit of team success. But given the Lions have lost two of their first three games, it has left Hockenson eager to do more to get the team over that hump.
“I want to help and I know what I can do,’ Hockenson said. “Everyone in this locker room knows what I can do. And so to have guys behind me that are wondering what’s happening be like, ‘Hey, all good, that kind of thing means a lot to me. And it just really shows your teammates have your back, and that’s kind of what you look for as a team. That’s a winning team.”
Another factor at play is Hockenson is performing for his next contract. Despite having two years left on his current deal after the Lions picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie pact, it’s the time when extension talks are in play, similar to what the team went through with former Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow last offseason.
Hockenson said he never got the sense he was close to an extension this offseason and insists he’s not thinking about it now, giving his full attention to the season. He subscribes to the idea that if he handles his business on the field, the contract stuff will take care of itself.
“I’ve proven I can be a receiver, I’ve proven that, you know, when my number is called I’ll make a play,” Hockenson said. “So I’m not really worried about that in any instance, I’m just trying to make an impact on this team, make sure we win, because there’s no doubt about it, when a winning organization comes along, they’ll keep players around and they’ll give them what they want.
“I’m not really focused on that, by any means,” he continued. “I’m just trying to take it play by play and day by day. Doing my job is what’s going to help me in that direction. That’s kind of what I’m looking at.”
Johnson has appreciated that attitude and believes it’s only a matter of time before Hockenson has a breakout game. And with the way injuries have been piling up among Detroit’s playmakers, particularly with St. Brown and running back D’Andre Swift looking doubtful for Sunday’s matchup with the Seattle Seahawks, now would seem to be as good a time as any.
“I’ve just been trying to stay calm and be sure I’m ready to go when my number’s called, and it’ll come,” Hockenson said. “I’m not worried about that.”