Lions' T.J. Hockenson focused on building a 'winning program,' not contract negotiations

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — As the Detroit Lions enter the second season of the franchise's rebuild, they are also nearing a crossroads with one of the roster's best players. 

While the Lions hold the rights to tight end T.J. Hockenson for both this season and next after exercising the fifth-year option on his rookie contract in April, this is the typical time to be discussing an extension with a young player of his caliber. 

At the league meetings in February, general manager Brad Holmes acknowledged those conversations were on his staff's radar, but, as has been his standard operating practice, he declined to offer any additional details. 

The Lions have tight end T.J. Hockenson under contract through the 2023 season.

Hockenson, similarly, is taking a low-key approach to his contract status. While it's easy for him to look around the league and see the huge money recently being committed to some of his peers at the position, he's leaving all of those conversations to his agent. 

"I'm not very good with the business side of things," Hockenson said after Tuesday's minicamp practice. "Guys tell me what I should make, what I shouldn't make, and I'm like, 'I don't give a — I don't really care.' That's one of those things where I'm going to play between the white lines, and whatever happens will happen.

"I told my agent, 'You do your thing, and I'll do my thing.' That's kind of where it's at. I don't really know much, I don't really care to know much. I'm just here every day to play with my teammates, and when that time comes to sign a piece of paper, I'll do that."

What's clear, barring an unforeseen change, is Hockenson is going to cash in, whether that's in the immediate future with the Lions or with another franchise as a free agent in 2024. 

David Njoku, the Cleveland Browns tight end who was selected in the first round two years before the Lions drafted Hockenson, recently inked a four-year deal worth up to $54.75 million, with more than half fully guaranteed. That follows similar deals for Mark Andrews and Dallas Goedert a year earlier. And based on that group's production, $14 million per season would seem to be the floor for Hockenson's upcoming pact. 

But he wants it to be known that his bank account isn't his primary focus. 

"I mean, that's a lot of money," Hockenson said about the deals signed by the other tight ends. "That's life-changing. I mean, I'm already in a situation where my life has changed, so really what I want to do is win. That's really all I care about.

"I just want to make this place a winning program and kind of build that. The money will fall where it may, and the contract will fall where it may. I just want to win. That's really my whole goal with everything is winning. All that other stuff won't affect me." 

Team success has eluded Hockenson to this stage of his career. The Lions have won five or fewer games each of his first three seasons. He emphasized that has been eating away at him far more than extension talks.

"I’ve spent the last three years going through the grind and doing it, and it’s great," Hockenson said. "You have to have that, but on the same hand, just winning is in the back of my mind and I want to do that here so bad. I really do. As a player, as a competitor, as anything, that’s all you want to do.

"That’s always been my mindset, that’s always been my mentality and guys in here can rely on me to do that. That’s the whole mentality that I want and the whole mentality that these guys want in the building. I just want to win. We don’t care about much else as long as our score is above theirs. And I want that here."

The No. 8 pick in the 2019 draft, Hockenson has largely delivered on his potential through three seasons, steadily improving while averaging 53 receptions, 558 yards and four touchdowns. He was even named to the Pro Bowl in 2020. As a blocker, he's still developing, but his coaches have made it clear that effort is not an issue.

The biggest downside has been some injury issues that sidelined him four games as a rookie and five last season. That shortcoming is not lost on Hockenson.

"My rookie year and these last couple years I've been going real hard in the offseason, and that's something I'm going to continue to do," Hockenson said. "But at the same time, you have to be smart with some situations. I think talking to the Lions and everybody, we're going to be smart right now for when we ultimately need me in the fall. That's kind of our plan, to go through 17 games and get it."

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers