Detroit Lions’ T.J. Hockenson, a Pro Bowl TE, anxious to make an impact, any way he can

Detroit Free Press

T.J. Hockenson stood in front of his locker, the mixed emotion of the situation written across his face.

The Detroit Lions offense has been fantastic to start this season, scoring the second most points in the NFL through three weeks. But Hockenson hasn’t factored much into it statistically.

The fourth-year tight end from Iowa has 10 catches for 82 yards and one touchdown. Extrapolated across a full, healthy 17-game season that would be 57 catches for 465 yards and 5.6 touchdowns.

“I’ve been trying to make the most of my opportunities when they come,” he said. “Yeah, it’s been a little limited for sure, but I’ve been trying to make an impact in other ways, with the run game, trying to get (D’Andre) Swift some more yards — I’ve just been trying to stay calm in that instance and make sure I’m ready to go when my number is called.

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“And it will come, I’m not worried about that.”

The catches and yards would be his fewest since his rookie season in 2019, the touchdowns would be on par with what he’s produced the past two years (six in 2020, four in 2021). He has been getting targets — 18 through three games, which is tied for the second most on the team — but is averaging just 4.9 yards per attempt his way.

In the meantime, he said he’s tried to find other ways to help the team. Like in the second play of Week 3 against Minnesota when he had a route that pulled defenders away from the zone and allowed DJ Chark to settle into the vacated area for a 23-yard play.

Still, he’s yearning for more.

“I want to help, I know what I can do,” he said. “Everybody in this locker room knows what I can do, so just to have guys behind me that are wondering what’s happening and like ‘hey, all good’, that kind of thing means a lot to me.

“It’s easier when you win, when you’re losing it’s a little tougher … when you come out with an L and I’m not helping as much as I want to, it’s a little tougher. But it’s all good.”

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Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson was Hockenson’s position coach last season and the two are very close. Hockenson said that’s “my dog” and joked he probably goes upstairs into his office even more than Johnson cares for.

“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. “Some weeks, some guys may get 10 catches and 100-plus yards and multiple touchdowns. Other weeks, that same guy might not get two targets and 16 yards.

“That’s the way this thing goes is it’s not like we’re deliberately going in each week and not trying to get him the football.”

Sunday against Seattle could be the perfect opportunity for Hockenson to break out. Swift is doubtful to play and Amon-Ra St. Brown is questionable, the two top options in the offense. Behind them, nobody on the team had more yards, targets or touchdowns last season than Hockenson.

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“Each guy, they have their plays, whether the defense allows us to take those, or we have to keep progressing,” Johnson said. “The quarterback’s going to take what the defense gives him, so yeah, at some point, I would expect T.J. to have a ‘outbreak’ game we’ll call it. Who knows when that’s going to happen, but these things go ebbs and flows.

“Sometimes those catches come in bunches. The touchdowns come in bunches, so I wouldn’t be surprised if in the near future he does have a more productive game.”

Hockenson is in the fourth year of his contract making just less than $5 million this year. The team exercised its fifth-year option earlier this year, which will pay him just less than $9.4 million.

Currently, there are 13 tight ends across the league who make at least $10 million, the most recent of which to join the club is Dawson Knox, who was a third-round pick in Hockenson’s class who just secured a four-year, $52 million deal.

The Lions’ former No. 8 overall pick said it never felt like he and the club were all that close to firming up a contract this offseason and now that the season has started, it’s something he’s leaving to his agent.

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Hockenson joked about how tight ends are a team’s “misfit toys.” They’re expected to run routes like receivers and block like linemen, but neither of the position groups “want to claim us.”

That said, he’s glad the position group is starting to get larger contracts and while putting up big numbers in the passing game is one way to do it, there are other ways as well.

“If you can make an impact as a player they’re going to give you what you need,” Hockenson said. “The yards are what it is, I’ve proven I can get open, I’ve proven I can be a receiver, I’ve proven when my number’s called I can make a play.

“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 give them what they want.”

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