Niyo: History won't haunt Lions with T.J. Hockenson pick

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson speaks at a press conference after the Lions selected him in the first round on Thursday.

Allen Park — The symmetry was hard to ignore. The criticism will be, too.

But it’s worth noting that Bob Quinn didn’t draft Eric Ebron. He released him.

And when the question inevitably came Thursday night, a few hours after the Lions used another top-10 pick on a tight end, selecting Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson with the No. 8 overall selection in this year’s NFL Draft, the Lions’ general manager was ready to cut that short, too.

“Two totally different players,” Quinn said.

He has no interest in saddling this one with the other’s tortured legacy in Detroit, either.

“Tomorrow morning when he gets here we’re not gonna revisit a draft I wasn’t even a part of,” Quinn said, smiling. “I’ve got other things to talk to him about.”

We all do, frankly. But for a fan base still scarred by the previous regime’s decision to select Ebron at No. 10 in 2014 — with the likes of Aaron Donald and Odell Beckham Jr. still on the board — the debate will rage for some time. Even in the Lions’ draft party held at the team’s headquarters Thursday night, the reaction to the pick was mixed.

Hockenson is only the fourth tight end to go in the top 10 since 1997, and the fact that Detroit selected half of those — and three first-round tight ends over the last decade — won’t sit well with many in this town.

Especially after the way the top of the draft played out, with two quarterbacks coming off the board in the first six picks and some intriguing defensive players falling to the Lions at No. 8. Ed Oliver isn’t Aaron Donald, but he’s a disruptive defensive tackle who went ninth to Buffalo. The Steelers liked Michigan linebacker Devin Bush — a player whose speed might've fit nicely in the middle of the Lions' defense — well enough to trade up to No. 10 to grab him.

'He checked every box'

When he met with the media just after midnight, Quinn acknowledged reports that the Lions were getting calls about trading back, too.

“Had a couple conversations,” he said, “but nothing that swayed us really hard to move out of that spot.”

So if this pick doesn’t move you, it certainly did the Lions, who’d zeroed in on Hockenson early in the draft process and never found much reason to doubt him as a top-10 prospect.

“He really checked every box we had in terms of the evaluation process,” Quinn said.

And for a team that sorely lacked production from the tight end position last season, this really wasn’t a surprise. 

The Lions missed out on the top tight ends in free agency last winter, then tried to trade for Rob Gronkowski prior to last year’s draft. (Gronk nixed any potential deal by threatening to retire a year before he ultimately did.) Detroit’s fallback plan proved to be underwhelming, at best, as the collection of Luke Willson, Michael Roberts and Levine Toilolo — and others I’ve probably forgotten — produced just 43 catches and four touchdowns all season.

Quinn went out and signed Pittsburgh’s Jesse James early in free agency this winter, handing him a four-year, $22.6 million deal. But the need for another tight end was obvious. And so was the notion that Hockenson was the clear-cut No. 1 player at the position in this year’s draft class.

He’s a rarity anymore as a complete tight end coming out of college, a natural pass catcher who’s also an accomplished in-line blocker, which is something no one was saying — or even thinking — about Ebron five years ago.

“There’s a lot of plays on tape where you’re watching this guy and he’s blocking somebody and all of a sudden you can’t see him anymore on the tape because he’s got his guy over on the sideline (and) he’s dumping him on the bench,” Lions head coach Matt Patricia said. “Just a tenacious guy, a tough guy. A blue-collar hard worker, and that’s really what we’re all about.”

'Very valuable player'

That’s what the pro-style offense he’s coming from is all about, too, which should help Hockenson, who won the Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end, make the difficult transition to the NFL game. He became the 10th Iowa tight end drafted during Kirk Ferentz’s tenure there, and teammate Noah Fant became the 11th when the Broncos called his name a dozen picks later.

While he’s not as explosive as a downfield threat as Fant — or the 49ers’ George Kittle, another recent Iowa tight end — Hockenson’s a more polished route runner. According to Pro Football Focus, he also dropped just two passes in his college career — another reason to ignore the Ebron comparisons — and as Patricia noted, “He’s a really tough guy to tackle.”

Ideally, he’ll help make the Lions’ offense much tougher to defend, adding another blocker for Kerryon Johnson and another third-down and red-zone target for Matthew Stafford. The Lions didn’t do much with “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends) last season, but bet on them utilizing it more this fall under new coordinator Darrell Bevell. 

“We’re trying to do everything we can on offense to be multiple, to get into different packages, put as much stress on the defense as possible," Patricia said. "Right now, the game is moving towards the tight end position. That’s the mismatch that everyone is trying to figure out.

“We see how they’re going to defend it. If they go too small, you can run the ball. If they go too big, you can throw it. There’s a lot of things you can do with these guys at the tight end position.”

Especially this one, they hope. 

NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah dubbed Hockenson “the safest player in the draft.”

“He's going to be a very valuable player with a very high floor,” he said, “as well as a high ceiling.”

A high bar to clear with many Lions fans, I’m sure. But the guy who drafted him sure didn’t sound worried about any of that Thursday night.

“He’s not gonna be scared, I know that,” Quinn said.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo