After stellar start, how high can Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson's ceiling rise?
Allen Park — It's admittedly silly to be talking about pace one game into the Detroit Lions' 17-game slate, but after the opener, it sure feels like tight end T.J. Hockenson is going to blow away Brandon Pettigrew's franchise record of 83 receptions in a season for a tight end.
Honestly, with an extra game added on to the schedule this year, wide receiver Herman Moore's 123-catch campaign from 1995 — the former league record which now ranks eighth all-time — doesn't feel out of reach.
Hockenson is good. This isn't breaking news. And at just 24 years old, entering his third season, it only stands to reason he was going to improve upon last year's Pro Bowl campaign. But despite being the obvious focal point of Detroit's rebuilding offense, his eight-grab, 97-yard performance in Week 1 leaves us wondering, how high is the ceiling for the budding star?
Coming out of that game against the San Francisco 49ers, Hockenson acknowledged he saw more double-teams than he had his first two years. Of course that did little to neutralize his impact within Detroit's game plan.
With 10 targets from quarterback Jared Goff, he finished second only to running back D'Andre Swift. And Hockenson's lofty usage doesn't figure to change anytime soon, particularly Monday night against the Packers, when the Lions are expected to be without their top receiver Tyrell Williams, who is recovering from a concussion.
Seemingly the only thing capable of holding Hockenson back is an injury. After a rough landing on the practice field during training camp, he was sidelined more than a week. But whenever he has been on the field, the fast-formed chemistry between him and Goff has been apparent.
"It’s a chemistry that I’ve spoken about that we’ve been building ever since I first got here, that me and him have been working together," Goff said after Sunday's game. "There are a lot of things that showed up that are from all that work and from that chemistry that you’re talking about. I think specifically the touchdown, just being a player there and kind of adjusting his route to make it work. It was good and we made it work."
That touchdown, a 6-yarder in the second quarter that tied the game at 7, was a prime example of the most obvious improvement Hockenson has made between the end of last season and the start of this one — the precision of his routes.
Hockenson credits the people he's surrounded himself with during his offseason, from fellow tight ends George Kittle and Robert Tonyan, to his personal speed coach in Nashville, Jeremy Holt.
But that's downplaying the individual effort Hockenson has put in to get better, much of which has come through film study and practice habits.
Earlier this offseason, he talked about studying Calvin Johnson's tape, trying to gain a better understanding for how the Lions Hall of Famer had the success he did. But on Friday, Hockenson expanded on the topic, discussing how he's been consuming film from other top receivers, such as Arizona's DeAndre Hopkins and Green Bay's Davante Adams, searching for things to incorporate into his own game.
Hockenson admits he'll occasionally slip down a social media rabbit hole, watching Instagram video highlights of some of the best receiver releases at the line of scrimmage — a skill where Adams' ability is vaunted — and immediately look to try to replicate them on the practice field the next day.
Hockenson has also relied on the insight of teammates, past and present, to help refine his abilities to beat the defense. That's because physical improvements are limited at this level, while technique is the great separator for elite talents.
"Last year, when (Mohamed) Sanu was here, he was a big part of just seeing it in person and just seeing how things work," Hockenson said. "I took a lot from him. He was a guy that was really good at showing something, and then he taught me what a defense thinks, what a (defensive back) thinks.
"And some of my best buddies are on the defensive side. Amani Oruwariye is one of my better buds and Will Harris, you know, those guys, just talking to them and saying, 'Hey, what did you see on that and why did you think I was going that way rather than this way? And why did you think I was doing this rather than that?' … Just being able to have communication with those guys is huge."
So does he think he has a shot to beat Moore's franchise record? That conversation is a big-picture look Hockenson really isn't interested in entertaining.
"I think the biggest thing is I just want to keep getting better," he said. "I mean, that's really it. I put to bed what I did last week. That's one of those things that, just mentally, you have to be able to (do). I can't go into this game being like, 'Oh yeah, I should be doing this. I should be doing this.' That's just not a good mental state to be in, you know?
"When you start to get into the statistic game, like halfway through the game you're just like, 'Oh, how many targets do I have? How many yards do I have?' That's not a good mental (approach). You need to take it play by play and be like, 'Hey, if the ball comes to me, I need to make this play.'"
Lions at Packers
► Kickoff: 8:15 p.m. Monday, Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin
► TV/radio: ESPN/97.1
► Records: Lions 0-1, Packers 0-1
► Line: Packers by 11½