Lions haul in 'natural catcher' T.J. Hockenson with No. 8 pick

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson poses with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected by the Lions.

Allen Park — T.J. Hockenson will tell you there were no guarantees about where he would go in the NFL Draft, but his socks suggested he knew there was a good chance he'd end up in Detroit. 

The mild-mannered tight end out of Iowa showed up to the draft donning a pair of green socks, emblazoned with a cartoon lion. They read, "King of the jungle." 

The Lions rebuffed underwhelming trade offers to move back Thursday night, selecting Hockenson with the No. 8 pick.

The John Mackey award winner as the nation's best tight end in 2018, Hockenson showcased a well-rounded skill set, proving to be an excellent blocker while catching 49 balls for 760 yards and six touchdowns for the Hawkeyes.

"This is a guy that finishes every single play," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "He can do the dirty work in the running game, make plays in the passing game. Really puts a lot of pressure on the defense and gives us more multiplicity on offense.

"There's a lot of plays on tape where you're watching this guy, and he's blocking somebody, and all of the sudden you can't see him anymore on the tape because he's got his guy over on the sideline and dumping him on the bench. Just a tenacious guy, a tough guy, and a blue-collar hard-worker, and that's really what we're all about."

Notably, Hockenson dropped just one pass last season, according to Pro Football Focus. That's unusual for the position, given how much tight ends operate in the middle of the field where they are either anticipating a big hit or taking one. 

"Really natural catcher," general manager Bob Quinn said. "Really smooth with the way he kind of coordinates his body to put his body in good position to make those tough catches. Obviously, excellent hands. (It’s) very natural the way he just kind of goes up and gets it — he doesn’t fight it at all. It comes really easy to him."

Hockenson becomes the fourth tight end selected in the top 10 since 1997. Detroit was the last team to grab one in that range, taking Eric Ebron with the No. 10 choice in 2014. 

One of the reasons tight ends are rarely drafted early is because of how difficult the transition can be from the college game, but Hockenson is confident his experience at Iowa has prepared him to make the leap. 

"Coming from a pro-style offense, being a three-down tight end, being able to hear a call in the huddle and be able to translate it — you only have a split second to do that and get to the line," Hockenson said during a conference call with Detroit media. 

Iowa has produced a number of NFL tight ends, including Dallas Clark and George Kittle, who set the NFL single-season record for receiving yardage at the position in 2018.

The Lions cut Ebron last offseason and got little production from the position in 2018. The group combined for 45 catches, 461 yards and four touchdowns.

Because Ebron fell short of expectations in Detroit, there will be some eager to draw comparisons to the Hockenson selection simply because the two share a position. Quinn said he'll probably address the potential fan backlash with the rookie, but doesn't believe it will be an issue. 

"Possibly, it might come up in conversation," Quinn said. "But this isn’t going to be a tomorrow morning when he gets in here, we’re (not) going to revisit a draft that I wasn’t even a part of. I’ve got other things to talk to him about."

The team partially addressed the need in free agency by signing Jesse James and Logan Thomas. Hockenson rounds out the rapid rebuild at the position. Quinn likes the versatility that adds to Detroit's offense. 

"It’s a position (where) you want to always have two really good players because like I said, we’re going to be in two-tight end sets," Quinn said. "If we’re in one-tight end sets, we can pick our poison to what type of guy we want to put out there."

Prior to Detroit's selection of Hockenson, the first three picks of the draft went as many observers expected, followed by two stunning selections among the next three choices. 

The Arizona Cardinals selected Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray with the No. 1 pick, followed by Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa to San Francisco and Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams to the New York Jets. 

The Raiders, who came into the night with three first-round picks, delivered the evening's first bombshell, taking Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell at No. 4. It's safe to say not one draft analyst saw that selection coming. 

With the fifth pick, Tampa Bay filled a major need at linebacker by taking LSU Devin White. 

At No. 6, the New York Giants grabbed a long-term replacement for quarterback Eli Manning, but not the one many expected. Instead of Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins, the Giants grabbed Duke's Daniel Jones.

The Jacksonville Jaguars took Kentucky's Josh Allen directly in front of the Lions. 

Meet T.J. Hockenson

Position: Tight end

College: Iowa

Round/overall: 1/8

Notable stats: Hauled in a team-best 49 receptions for 760 yards and six touchdowns.

Analysis: Hockenson was part of a dynamic duo for Iowa at position with Noah Fant, which makes the fact he won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end all the more impressive. Hockenson is considered a do-everything tight end who is not only a capable receiver, but a strong blocker as well. He could be the latest in a long line of quality NFL tight ends to come out of Iowa, following the likes of Dallas Clark and George Kittle.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers