Rogers: With Hockenson trade, Lions go deeper into rebuild mode, but higher draft picks will help

Detroit News

A week ago, when throwing her support behind coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes, Detroit Lions owner Sheila Hamp made sure to emphasize the magnitude of the team’s rebuild, characterizing it as a teardown. Little did we realize there were still walls days away from being knocked down.

On Tuesday, Holmes took a sledgehammer to one of those walls, shipping tight end T.J. Hockenson to division-rival Minnesota for some upgraded draft stock, hoping to find more concrete for the foundation he’s attempting to lay.

It’s not a bold statement to suggest this was a good deal for Detroit. In his three-plus seasons with the Lions, Hockenson proved to be a good player, but never a great one. He flashed as a pass-catcher but lacked the consistency to ever be seriously considered among the elite producers at his position. And despite being touted as an outstanding blocker coming out of Iowa, it had yet to translate to the NFL level.

So, when looking around the league at similar-caliber tight ends, such as Dallas Goedert, David Njoku and Dawson Knox, each scoring extensions ranging between $13-$14.2 million per season, did anyone really feel comfortable with the Lions forking over that kind of dough to a guy who might never ascend beyond a B-tier talent?

So the Lions made a rare trade within the division, taking advantage of a team desperate for a serviceable replacement for Irv Smith Jr., the pending free agent who is expected to be on the shelf for at least the next two months because of a high-ankle strain.

What did the Lions get, exactly? Well, a second- and third-round pick, a year apart. They also shipped out two selections with Hockenson, a pair of fourth-rounders, with the second of the two in 2024 becoming a fifth-round choice if the 6-1 Vikings go on to win a postseason game this year.

The final value will likely be somewhere around a 50-slot jump up the board this year and conceivably up to 80 next year, if the Vikings do score that playoff victory and both teams finish in the middle of the pack in 2024.

But let’s focus on 2023. The Lions now hold four choices in the first two rounds — thanks to the remaining first-rounder coming over from the Rams as part of the Matthew Stafford swap last offseason. And barring any kind of miraculous turnaround after the Lions’ 1-6 start to the campaign, they’ll have five selections in the first 70.

Overall, Detroit is scheduled to pick nine times next April, after shipping their fourth-rounder to the Vikings in this deal, but gaining a sixth-rounder from Denver, which was a part of the Trinity Benson trade last year.

Potentially more important, the increased draft equity gives the Lions flexibility to pursue top targets through trades, just like last year, when they used an extra first-rounder from the Rams to move up 20 spots to land Jameson Williams.

Maybe that doesn’t move the needle as much as it should, since Williams has yet to see the field in Detroit, but the conversation about whether these moves pan out and result in a successful rebuild will be a conversation for a different day. All we know is Holmes’ earliest successes have come through the draft, with Penei Sewell, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Alim McNeill and Malcolm Rodriguez initially offering promising returns and expectations remaining high for Williams and fellow 2022 picks Aidan Hutchinson and Kerby Joseph.

Moving Hockenson also frees cap space. It’s only a couple million this season, but takes the Lions off the hook for more than $9 million in 2023, while also eliminating the feeling they need to extend him at market rate, which, as previously mentioned, would have been around $14 million per season.

That, along with some likely cap casualties (Michael Brockers, Halapoulivaati Vaitai) figures to put the team in better position to address needs in free agency more effectively than they’ve done in Holmes’ first two offseasons.

All told, even if you’ve heard it before and are sick of hearing it, this rebuild is largely on track. But draft picks and cap space are only as good as what you spend it on. If Holmes and Campbell are going to lead the Lions out of this pit, they’re going to need to start hitting on signings and draft picks at a higher rate, starting next offseason. Otherwise, someone else will be taking over the seemingly impossible task of making the Lions relevant.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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