NFL Draft: What the Detroit Lions are getting in Hawkeyes tight end T.J. Hockenson

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

T.J. Hockenson was deemed perhaps the “safest pick in the NFL draft,” but that label vastly undersells the do-it-all tight end from Iowa.

Hockenson, who was selected Thursday night with the eighth overall pick by the Detroit Lions, will arrive at his first NFL training camp as a complete player who still has a slew of upside.

In two years, he went from 225-pound red-shirt freshman to a mauling, 250-pounder with soft hands who became the first sophomore to ever win the Mackey Award as college football’s top tight end.

T.J. Hockenson's athleticism is probably not given enough credit. He showed at Iowa an ability to jump high for catches and over defenders. He was also Iowa's best big-play threat in 2018.

The positives

Let’s start with the intangibles.

Hockenson (officially 6-5, 251) loves football. He lives football. He's high character with low drama. He’ll be a model teammate while, still only 21, carrying a hunger to improve.

Now, the tangibles.

Even though Iowa had an NFL Combine superstar at tight end in Noah Fant, there was a reason that Hockenson played far more snaps: He was an every-down blocker who could dominate in the run game or in pass protection while at the same time becoming a big-play target. He can slide into any scheme and be an ideal fit because of his versatile skill set.

Among Hockenson's strengths: He runs crisp routes to achieve separation. He has sneaky speed, as he showed with a 54-yard catch-and-run touchdown at Indiana. And his hands are off the charts. He made many difficult catches in traffic at Iowa. Even though Pro Football Focus claims he had two drops in his career, I can't remember one.

NFL Network's Lance Zierlein compared him to Travis Kelce; Daniel Jeremiah sees him as being more like Jason Witten. Either one would work just fine — both are likely on their path to the Hall of Fame. Hockenson should be a Day 1 starter in the NFL and lock down the Lions' tight-end position for the next eight to 10 years.

The concerns

His 37½-inch vertical jump accentuates his ability, but he still isn’t quite the “freak” athlete that Fant or George Kittle (who inexplicably lasted until the fifth round in 2017) are. I actually thought Kittle's run-blocking at the college level exceeded Hockenson's, too.

There has to be a little curiosity among NFL franchises about what Hockenson can do without Fant attracting so much attention on the field. In the one game Fant didn't play alongside Hockenson (the Outback Bowl game against Mississippi State), Hockenson was held without a catch for the first three quarters.

But on or off the field, there really isn't a significant weakness to worry about.

Safest pick in the draft? Yeah, maybe so.

Chad Leistikow’s final thoughts

To me, one play defines Hockenson's career at Iowa.

With the Hawkeyes facing a fourth-and-8 in the cold rain from the Nebraska 37-yard line, they called a timeout with 42 seconds left in a 28-28 game. Kirk Ferentz rolled the dice and had quarterback Nate Stanley throw the ball downfield.

The target? You already know.

Lined up in the right slot, Hockenson would say afterward that he read the safety's eyes and knew instantly the defender would back-pedal to offer a soft cushion. Hockenson ran his route about 12 yards, turned and welcomed the ball between the 3 and 8 on his jersey for a 10-yard gain. He got up and smiled, pointing downfield.

That play showed Hockenson's high football IQ, route-running ability, reliable hands, a touch of swagger and — most importantly — his dependability.

Hockenson is a full-service, full-trust tight end that will thrive with proven Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford for years to come.