Detroit Lions get meager return for T.J. Hockenson, set up for big future payoff

Detroit Free Press

Trading T.J. Hockenson for the swap of draft picks they got from the Minnesota Vikings at Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline was not the slam dunk of a win the Detroit Lions would like you to believe.

Hockenson, still 25, is a top-10 tight end in the prime of his career on a reasonable contract that runs through 2023. His production had dipped this season in a new offense, but he still led the Lions in receiving yards through seven games and was one of the few bright spots in their disastrous 1-6 start.

But dealing Hockenson was a welcome admission by Lions general manager Brad Holmes that this season is going nowhere fast, and a sign the team is committed to finding the quarterback it desperately needs to build around this offseason.

The Lions added a 2023 second-round pick and 2024 fourth-rounder in the trade, and gave up a fourth-round pick next year and a conditional four in the 2024 draft.

Essentially, the Lions sent Hockenson to their division rivals to move up 1½ rounds for the right to draft what at best will be a top-55 player next spring — a Josh Paschal-type, with hopefully better health.

That’s not enough to give up your best tight end, as receptive as he seemed to be to starting over with a new team, and to make that position the weak spot on your roster — unless you have a grander vision for the spring.

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The Lions added more attractive draft capital to their coffers Thursday by getting rid of a player they didn’t need but would have kept had they not gotten a high pick back in return.

Hockenson is a good player. He made the Pro Bowl in 2020, the only season he did not finish on injured reserve. But his contract will be up by the time the Lions are ready to win, and with the team reluctant to sign him to a long-term deal, it saw more value in the future than what he could offer now.

With two first-round picks and two seconds in next year’s draft, plus a third-round choice that should be near the top of the round, the Lions will enter the spring with enough ammunition to maneuver their way around other irrelevant teams fishing for difference makers near the top of the draft.

Throw in the nearly $10 million in cap room they created by trading Hockenson, and even allotting a chunk of that to sign a veteran replacement, and the Lions have more wherewithal to help themselves in free agency, too.

In the draft, the avenue that matters most to the Lions’ rebuild, Alabama pass rusher Will Anderson and quarterbacks Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud stand apart as the top prospects, with Anderson a Myles Garrett-type who could end up going third because of positional value.

The Lions currently own the draft’s first pick, and if that holds, they will have their choice of quarterbacks to build around. It’s the most essential position in sports, and one the Lions acknowledged they need to upgrade with Thursday’s trade.

After working all offseason to surround Jared Goff with the talent they said he needed to win, signing DJ Chark and trading for Jameson Williams and bringing back Josh Reynolds in free agency, the Lions pulled the plug on that failed experiment Thursday, affirming once and for all Goff’s spot as a placeholder.

There is no guarantee the Lions will stay at the top of the next year’s draft, and no guarantee — even with the extra draft value they acquired in Tuesday’s trade — they will be able to move up to get Goff’s replacement if they don’t.

The Houston Texans and Carolina Panthers are the other teams tumbling toward the No. 1 pick. Both need quarterbacks badly and both have extra draft capital in their war chests.

But even if the Lions “settle” for Anderson or an interior rusher like Georgia’s Jalen Carter, they should be in position to get a quarterback they like.

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Maybe it’s Kentucky’s Will Levis in the bottom half of the top 10, or Florida’s Anthony Richardson later in the draft. Maybe there’s another quarterback they have their eye on. Maybe the opportunity will arise to take a swing at the position in free agency.

Goff is under contract for two more seasons and there is reason to believe he could stick around.

Dan Campbell, assuming the Lions win a few more games and he survives this year, will need to show progress in Year 3 to keep his job, and Goff will be better equipped to do that than any rookie in the draft.

But the Lions did not deal Hockenson on Thursday thinking it will help them contend in 2023. They dealt him with both eyes on the future, and if they don’t use some of the resources they’ve acquired to address the quarterback position their future won’t be that bright.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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