Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, George Kittle. Those are the only three tight ends that most agree are at the top of the position. There are a few people out there who believe Kittle’s solid two-year stretch of 2018 and 2019 overshadow his greater flaws as a pass-catcher. There are those who believe Travis Kelce isn’t a good enough blocker to be considered elite. Those complaints about Kelce are totally unfounded. Kelce has actually been an above-average blocker at the tight end position for a few years now. There are some Patriots stans who would probably argue that Rob Gronkowski still belongs in that category, especially given what he’s been able to do in the first two weeks of this season. However, I’d like to suggest a different name to join the ranks of the “tight end elite.”
Former Detroit Lions’ first-round selection T.J. Hockenson has been an absolute stud through his first three years in the NFL, and has improved every season he’s been in the league. Since the start of 2020, Hockenson has recorded 83 receptions, 886 yards, and 8 touchdowns in 18 games. While those stats may not seem that eye-popping, when you take a closer look, they’re actually remarkable. Hockenson ranks third in receptions and yards in that span (behind Kelce and Waller) and ties for fifth in touchdown receptions. Keep in mind, he was doing all that while finishing ninth among tight ends in targets per game. However, 2021 is Hockenson’s first season as a true No. 1 option on an NFL offense. 2019 and 2020 were all about Marvin Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladay. Now though, with a new head coach, a new quarterback, and both his top competitors for targets gone, Hockenson has Detroit’s offense all to himself, and he’s about to break through big time.
However, being labeled an elite tight end means you need to bring more to the table than just sheer volume. You have to either be able to block well, be an incredible route runner, or be a solid red zone threat. Well, Hockenson has shown in the past that he can do the first two extremely well. In 2020, Hockenson was one of just two tight ends in the league (Kittle) with PFF grades above 70.0 in both receiving and pass blocking. Plus, through the first two games of 2021, he has shown potential in all three departments. Currently, Hockenson is tied for eighth in the NFL in total red zone targets (4). He’s also one of only three players with at least four red zone targets to have a 100 percent catch rate within the 20-yard line (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Jones are the other two), meaning that not only do Jared Goff and the Detroit coaching staff trust Hockenson to come down with the ball in the end zone, thus far in 2021, he always has. That’s a lot of confidence in someone who’s yet to record more than six touchdowns in a season.
A lot of people like to compare Hockenson to Kittle. It makes sense. The two of them are at the top of the tight end position in the blocking department. They also both went to Iowa. However, Kittle has the edge on Hockenson in a few departments. For one, Kittle is better after the catch. One quick Google search of the name “Kittle” would probably yield 20 or so video results showing him carrying six defenders down the sideline while being dragged down by his facemask. In 2020, Kittle was third in the NFL in YAC above expectation (+2.3). Kittle is also a slightly better route runner. While Hockenson excels at making catches in traffic, Kittle is tremendous at finding soft spots in zone coverages and sitting in them.
Hockenson is not at Kittle’s level in YAC, route running, or blocking (but he’s close) yet, but how far is he from being a top-tier talent? Obviously, he’s gotten off to a tremendous start in 2021. Currently, Hockenson is on pace for 136 receptions, 1,386 yards, and 17 touchdowns. Yeah, I think that would do it. We shouldn’t expect Hockenson to continue to perform at such a high rate though. In my mind, Hockenson is already elite. All he needed was a scheme change. When Hockenson is at the front of the Lions’ offense, he can produce at an elite level. Head coach Dan Campbell trusts Hockenson, and Hockenson respects Campbell, a former tight end. While the lack of offensive weapons supporting Hockenson makes me wonder what type of season he’d be able to put up with a high-end quarterback, Hockenson can still manage elite numbers either way. He is currently tied for the NFL lead in receptions (16), and given what we’ve seen from him over his first two seasons, we shouldn’t expect him to give up that crown anytime soon.
Welcome to 2021, Year of the Hock!
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