What must Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson become to justify top-10 draft pick?
Allen Park — First-round picks are arguably the NFL's most valuable currency.
They offer the chance for a franchise to secure a top-flight talent for up to five seasons at a controlled cost. It's why those picks are rarely traded, and when they are, they can help land a superstar in return, such as Chicago's deal for linebacker Khalil Mack last year.
The earlier the draft pick, the more value it has. In turn, the expectations for the players selected at those spots also increase.
Last week, the Detroit Lions rebuffed trade interest for their No. 8 pick, the team's earliest choice in six years. Instead, they stood pat and selected Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson.
The decision wasn't all that surprising, but it does buck conventional drafting wisdom. For a number of reasons, tight ends typically aren't drafted that early. For one, it's among the toughest positions to develop, and even tougher to project high-level success. Only four tight ends have been selected in the top 10 the last 20 years, with the Lions being responsible for the past two.
The Lions were clearly sold on Hockenson, last year's John Mackey Award winner as the nation's best tight end. The consensus among analysts is Hockenson is the most complete prospect at his position in several years, possessing excellent hands, advanced blocking and plus-athleticism. Add in off-the-charts football character, and it's easy to buy into the idea he has an exceptionally high floor and equally high ceiling as an NFL prospect.
But how does Hockenson need to produce, not just as a rookie, but as he grows into his potential, to provide the value expected of being drafted inside the top 10?
An easy answer would be he has to become a top 10 player at his position, but good luck coming up with that list. The top is easy enough, with Kansas City's Travis Kelce, Philadelphia's Zach Ertz and San Francisco's George Kittle, who just set the receiving yardage record for the position in his second season.
We can debate the next tier, but former Lion Eric Ebron, Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph and Green Bay's Jimmy Graham are as good of options as any.
And you can round out the list with any number of players, from those coming back from injury such as Hunter Henry, Jack Doyle or Delanie Walker, to young up-and-comers like O.J. Howard, Evan Engram or Dallas Goedert, or the always-desirable well-rounded talents like Vance McDonald or Austin Hooper.
It's easy to show how a tight end contributes as a pass-catcher with statistics to lean on. We know 15 caught at least 40 passes, 17 tallied more than 500 yards and 16 scored at least four touchdowns.
Lions general manager Bob Quinn acknowledged there's a transitional period for all college players, especially tight ends, but also said he doesn't anticipate Hockenson being a slow study. If he could manage to hit those benchmarks as a rookie, he would be well ahead of the curve.
For added context, only 30 rookie tight ends in the Super Bowl era have caught 40 or more passes, including Lions Hall of Famer Charlie Sanders, who set the franchise mark with 40 in 1968.
The other aspect of playing tight end — blocking — is more difficult to quantify. Unless we're willing to invest hundreds of hours into studying film, we're left to lean on someone else to do it for us. Enter Pro Football Focus, who grades each tight end's run blocking and pass protection on a 1-100 scale, with a grade of 65 or better being considered adequate.
It's surprising to see how few tight ends do both well, and far fewer who are also productive receivers. Even the top-tier guys, like Kelce and Ertz, are below-average run blockers, according to PFF.
Understanding the rarity of the all-around tight end is where Hockenson can provide added value to the Lions.
And while no two players share identical skill sets and physical attributes, there are several strong examples of the all-around performance Detroit should eventually hope for from Hockenson.
A note, we aren't including Rob Gronkowski in the discussion simple because it's beyond reason to expect a rookie to be the second-coming of arguably the best to ever play the position.
The longtime Pittsburgh Steeler shared a similar body type to Hockenson. A first-round pick out of Virginia, Miller didn't participate in pre-draft workouts due to injury, so it's difficult to compare athleticism. From a production standpoint, Miller earned stellar blocking grades throughout his career, while averaging 58 catches for 635 yards and four touchdowns after his first two seasons.
Olsen is an inch taller than Hockenson and ran a faster 40 coming out of college. Otherwise, the overall athletic profiles are similar. Olsen has been a good blocker much of his career, although his run blocking has suffered as injuries have mounted in recent seasons. A productive receiver during his early years in Chicago, his statistical output blossomed in Carolina. During his peak years, from 2011-16, he averaged 71 receptions, 897 yards and five touchdowns.
Physically, Walker and Hockenson have little in common. A small-school standout, Walker is undersized for the position, coming out of school at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds. He made up for it with speed and versatility.
After seven seasons as a Swiss Army knife in San Francisco, Walker signed with the Titans and emerged as one of NFL's best all-around players at the position. Prior to an injury last season, he averaged 71 catches for 831 yards and five touchdowns from 2013-17, while maintaining his reputation as an outstanding blocker.
Three years before Hockenson won the Mackey Award, Henry took home the trophy as a junior at Arkansas. Considered the best tight end in his draft class, Henry went to the Chargers early in the second round. He made an immediate impact, catching 36 passes, including eight touchdowns, as a rookie, and followed that up with a stellar all-around performances the following year.
Henry isn't nearly as athletic as Hockenson, but has managed to average 13 yards per reception during his young career, while quickly adjusting to the blocking demands at the professional level.
Ebron's teammate in Indianapolis, Doyle has been a solid run blocker for the Colts the past five seasons. He flew under the NFL's radar at Western Kentucky, going undrafted in 2013 despite a good build and back-to-back 50-catch seasons for the Hilltoppers.
It didn't happen right away, but Doyle caught 59 passes his fourth season and 80 his fifth, before injuries limited him to six games last year.
If Hockenson lives up to his reputation as a blocker, particularly in the ground game, while eventually providing 55 or more receptions annually, he'll quickly establish himself as one of the NFL's best all-around tight ends. That production would mirror what Miller provided the Steelers for much of the past decade before his retirement in 2016.
If the Lions manage to get even more receiving production out of Hockenson, similar the peak levels of Olsen or Walker, there will be no debating whether the franchise made the right decision to go outside the box and select another tight end inside the top 10.