After Pro Bowl year, Lions look to squeeze more production out of T.J. Hockenson
Detroit Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson delivered on expectations in his second season, making significant strides as both a blocker and a pass-catcher.
A first-round pick in 2019, Hockenson finished with 67 receptions for 723 yards and six touchdowns, essentially doubling his rookie output. It was enough to earn him Pro Bowl honors in the NFC.
But seeing as he doesn't turn 24 years old until July, the reasonable question is what's next for the Lions' budding star?
Detroit's tight end coach Ben Johnson said he gained a pretty good understanding of Hockenson's strengths and weaknesses throughout his sophomore campaign, working within the former staff's parameters of quarterly evaluations. And the incoming staff, including head coach Dan Campbell and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, essentially validated Johnson's evaluation.
Now it's about extracting more juice from the orange.
"We've highlighted three to five things that we've circled, 'Hey, this is going to be our points of emphasis going forward,'" Johnson said Wednesday, intentionally avoiding specifics. "This is where you're going to take that next jump from Year 2 to Year 3. I think it's been a fairly consistent message all offseason, from Coach Campbell to A-Lynn, that there's plenty of meat still on that bone for him. And I think he's embraced that, he agrees with that. We're really looking forward to getting more out of him now."
There is always the potential things get more difficult before Hockenson sees another jump in production. Johnson acknowledged there's an expectation opponents will be more focused on slowing down Hockenson now that he's established himself as a consistent threat.
But within that, it offers more opportunities for individual and team improvement.
"There's no question, the more production that you have, particularly in the passing game, teams will go into a game trying to take you out," Johnson said. "I think we still have room to improve, just in terms of how do we run our routes, how do we get separation at the top of our routes. We can do that. The moment we start getting double coverage, great. We'll find a way to either beat that or we're going to be getting one of our buddies open in the process. That's a challenge, and once it comes down the tube, we'll look forward to taking it on."
Johnson said he hasn't seen Hockenson since the end of last season, but he has been keeping tabs on the player's offseason adventures through social media, which has been a mix of spending plenty of time working out, with a healthy dose of fun sprinkled in. That included shooting a comical commercial with friend and former college teammate George Kittle.
While players having big personalities might have been frowned upon with the previous coaching staff, Johnson appreciates Hockenson enjoying his offseason because he has no doubts he'll get Hockenson's best once he rejoins the team.
Johnson also sees some similarities between Hockenson and Campbell, a former tight end who Johnson coached with in Miami several years ago.
"Shoot, I look at it, he's a lot like our head coach," Johnson said. "Our head coach has a personality. I know him. I was with him from 2012-15 down there in Miami and...he's a bigger competitor than I've ever been around in this league. So I know he's going to work his tail off to win.
"At the same time, he's going to have fun. He's going to play hard, too. He's a work hard, play hard (guy). I see T.J. Hockenson in that same light. I think those two are going to get along really, really well because they're cut from the same cloth. T.J., once the snap goes, until the next whistle, in between those white lines, he's going to go hard. The sky is the limit for the kid and I really look forward to seeing him take that next step."