George Kittle, T.J. Hockenson part of 'rare' breed of NFL tight end

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Before he went into coaching, Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell pieced together a solid playing career. But a little more than a decade after he hung up his cleats, the former tight end recognizes his abilities never held a candle to the athletes who dominate the position he played 11 seasons for four franchises after being selected in the third round of the 1999 NFL draft. 

Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson is entering his third NFL season.

"It certainly has evolved," Campbell said. "I could do none of those things (modern tight ends do). I was basically a tackle. There is no comparison. The athletes now, I'll tell you what, every year they get bigger, faster, stronger and more explosive. That's just kind of the nature where this league has gone, really. 

"I was slow slug, that's what I was."

With T.J. Hockenson in Detroit, Campbell has the opportunity to coach one of those new breeds of tight ends. But the guy who will be across the sideline in the team's season opener this week, San Francisco's George Kittle, he's on another level. 

"Look, I think I've had a lot of respect for Kittle, just from afar, watching him," Campbell said. "I think he's one of the rare tight ends who can do everything and does it well. He does the dirty work, he's not afraid to block, he can do all that stuff on the perimeter, pass block, but yet he's a dynamic receiver. He's big, strong and physical."

Because of the game's evolution, most tight ends coming out of college are pass-catchers first and blockers second. Campbell refers to trend as "big skill," a term he regularly used when talking about Atlanta Falcons rookie Kyle Pitts ahead of this year's draft

"When I think of a tight end, I think of somebody that still blocks the perimeter like Gronk (Rob Gronkowski), Kittle and those guys vs. big skill," Campbell explained. "Big skill is a guy who can do some of that, but really he's a mismatch. He's just a big basketball player that can run, get open and create separation. I know this, both players, they're somewhat rare. I would say it's probably even rarer to find a guy who can create separation and still block like a tackle. I think those guys are very rare."

That's Kittle. Like Hockenson, he came out of the University of Iowa, where blocking remains a required skill to see the field.  Both Kittle and Hockenson have carried that trait into the league, but Kittle, with two additional years of pro experience, is at a different level in his development, particularly the way he dominates in the 49ers' ground game. 

As a pass-catcher, Kittles has averaged more than 80 yards per game the past three seasons, scoring 12 touchdowns in those 38 contests. During his most productive season, in 2018, he hauled in 88 passes for 1,377 yards. 

Campbell, who could block with the best of them as a player, produced less as a receiver during his 114-game career — 91 catches, 934 yards — than Kittle did in that one season.

Hockenson hasn't matched Kittle in that department either, but he's on his way. In his second season with the Lions last year, he hauled in 67 balls for 723 yards and six touchdowns, earning Pro Bowl honors in the NFC after Kittle missed eight games due to injury. 

"Our guy is pretty damn good, too," Campbell said. "He can do a lot of things that Kittle does, and I think for us, we've got to find ways to get him the football and let him do what he does. I know this, he can help us win."

At this point, it's well known that Kittle and Hockenson are close. A mentor at Iowa, Kittle and Hockenson are training partners during the offseason. Hockenson also got a guest spot in a commercial Kittle filmed this summer

Despite the friendship and connection, Hockenson is making sure he approaches this week the same as any other. 

"You know George is my guy," Hockenson said last month. "We're always talking, we've always got a little bit of a competitive edge going, so it's going to be fun. It's a game. You approach every game the same. George is on the other side, that's one of my best buds, so that just makes it even more special. But it's still just football, still a game I've been playing since I was seven years old, so no (added) pressure, no nothing, just going out there and doing my game."

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers