T.J. Hockenson to the Titans at No. 19? Iowa TE is downplaying the hype

Erik Bacharach
The Tennessean

INDIANAPOLIS  — One NFL analyst labeled Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson the “safest pick” in the 2019 NFL draft, which comes to Nashville in April.

That’s relative, of course.

Hockenson, the dynamic, hulking tight end who is widely considered the top at his position this draft class, is a first-round pick in essentially every mock draft on the internet. But in Nashville, he’s a lightning rod for debate: Should the Titans splurge on a tight end with the 19th overall pick when they’ve got more glaring needs elsewhere on the roster?

IOWA CITY, IOWA- SEPTEMBER 22:  Tight ends Noah Fant #87  and T.J. Hockenson #38 of the Iowa Hawkeyes celebrate a touchdown during the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers on September 22, 2018 at Kinnick Stadium, in Iowa City, Iowa.  (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)

As April 25 draws closer, the hype intensifies. Hockenson, talking at the podium for 15 minutes at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine on Friday, played it off.

“I mean, I try not to pay attention to it,” he said with a shrug. “I’m doing my job right now. I’m here at the Combine. I’m having a lot of fun meeting new people, building new relationships and just not worried about it.”

That’s the diplomatic tone with which Hockenson spoke for much of the interview. When asked about teams he has met with, he balked. "I’ve spoken with a lot," he said. When asked if he thought he was the best tight end in this class, he balked again. "There's a lot of good tight ends here," he said. 

But the soft-spoken 6-foot-5, 251-pounder also let his guard down in a few instances, including one in which he got emotional while talking about his former coaches at Iowa.

“They’re family,” he said as his eyes teared up. “They hold a special place in my heart.”

That's the type of character the Titans are looking for with whomever they select on draft day. And on the field, Hockenson hits all the check marks for a Titans team that often employs two-tight end sets. He's a prolific pass-catcher. A great run blocker. A physical specimen.

But is he a fit on this roster?

Despite both ESPN's Todd McShay and Mel Kiper predicting Hockenson lands with the Titans in recent mock drafts (though in Kiper's most recent mock, he has the tight end going to the Lions with the eighth pick), tight end is not atop the Titans' list of pressing needs. Delanie Walker will be 35 by the start of the 2019 season and coming off a season-ending ankle injury, he’s still only two years removed from a four-season streak of at least 63 catches and 800 yards. Jonnu Smith was emerging when his season was cut short by a knee injury. Anthony Firkser and MyCole Pruitt flashed promise.

So if Hockenson falls to 19, there won't be any choice for Titans brass. Hockenson, after all, has been dubbed as can't-miss as it gets in this year's draft.

"I think he's the safest player in the draft," NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah. "I don't compare anybody to (Rob Gronkowski), he's on a whole different level in terms of what he can do, but I saw this kid with that same temperament and nastiness in the run game and controlling the run game, and then on top of that, he does nothing but get open and catch everything they throw to him.

"He's going to be a very valuable player with a very high floor as well as a high ceiling for me."

More hype for Hockenson, who insists he just wants to put his head down and get to work.

"It's flattering. It is. But no one knows what's going to happen until draft day. Nobody. And you don't get your hopes up in this process. You don't do anything (like that). You go to work. That's what I've done and that's what I'm going to continue to do. It's definitely a blessing to be able here."

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