The latest player we shall look at in our rookie review series is another Iowa tight end, this time T.J. Hockenson, who was taken with the eighth overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions.
There are always great expectations for any player taken that early in the draft. But Hockenson came into the NFL looking ideally suited for the role of the modern dynamic receiving TE. His performance at the NFL Scouting Combine only enhanced these beliefs.
It’s fair to say that the Lions were confident they were landing a player who could provide a boost to their offense and another weapon for Matthew Stafford. Well, let’s see how that all worked out.
By The Numbers
OK, I’ll be the first to admit that these numbers don’t look great. But they look even worse when one considers that Hockenson had six receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown in Week 1. He was the TE2 in PPR scoring that week, with 25.1 points coming his way against the Cardinals. Hockenson commanded a 22% target share in that game.
In the remaining games of his rookie season, Hockenson would have one game in which he saw more targets than the nine he drew in his debut. Hockenson saw 11 looks in Week 13. He converted these looks into six receptions … for 18 yards. He commanded a 31% target share this time around. If you remove Week 1 and Week 13 (which turned out to be his final game of the season), his usage numbers make for incredibly grim reading.
Week 1 was the only time he produced anything of value to fantasy owners. After his TE2 start to the season, Hockenson would finish no higher than TE14 the rest of the way. It’s not as if he fell out of favor with the coaching staff, either. He was on the field for a consistent number of snaps each week. He just didn’t command a lot of targets.
“Ah, but you’re wrong Neil” some of you may be saying. “He clearly saw a drop in snaps right off the bat. Look at how his numbers dropped from Week 1 to Week 2.” I applaud the eagle-eyed among you, but must also point out that Lions and Cardinals played out a tie in that first game of the season. So everyone played more snaps.
TE is a position where even great players can struggle right out of the gate. So we shouldn’t assign the bust label to Hockenson based on these numbers. But only a supreme optimist could say that as far as counting stats go, 2019 was a triumph for T.J.
In order to find players who enjoyed comparable seasons, I did what we’ve done in the past when carrying out this series. I set the RotoViz Screener to find rookies from 2010 to 2019 and selected some basic production and usage numbers as variables. Then I asked the Screener to find seasons comparable to my target player — in this instance, Hockenson.
Lions fans will not thank me for including the name Eric Ebron on this list. Ebron was the last TE the Lions took in the first round of the NFL Draft. But I just go by the numbers here people.
It’s not just Ebron either. This is a pretty underwhelming set of comps for any player. Yes, Coby Fleener had some nice seasons with the Colts and Andrew Luck. He finished as the TE7 in PPR formats in 2014. Tyler Eifert has also made some noise in the NFL. He has had three seasons in which he finished as a TE1 in PPR points per game, including finishing as the TE8 in 2015. But comping a first-round selection to players like Jace Amaro and Maxx Williams never instills confidence.
To get a range of outcomes for Hockenson’s 2020, let’s look at how these players fared in their second seasons.
The cupboard looks a little bare, doesn’t it? Well, there is a good reason for that. Both Amaro and Williams missed their entire sophomore seasons due to injury. Eifert looks like he enjoyed a second season leap for the ages, especially when you look at his reFPOE from Year 1 to Year 2. But he only played one game in 2014. So if we are to look at positives, then maybe Hockenson could be the second coming of Coby Fleener. Or Ebron.
T.J. Hockenson will hopefully be over the ankle injury that ultimately ended his rookie season early by the time the Lions begin their offseason program. But there are question marks about the Lions offense that cloud his future in uncertainty. There have been whispers that the team might look to move on from Stafford, though these claims were later loudly disputed by the team. But Stafford himself is working his way back from injury, and as disappointing Hockenson’s overall numbers were in 2019, they were a lot worse when Stafford was out of the lineup.
Fantasy players are not exactly overwhelmed with confidence that a second-year leap is coming for Hockenson. He’s being taken as the TE14 in FFPC drafts, behind Mike Gesicki and ahead of Ian Thomas. Personally, I’d be taking Thomas ahead of him. But that’s just me. Hockenson has shown that he can produce in the NFL, albeit in only one game. But a lot needs to happen for me to look at him confidently and state “There is a player I need not consider starting streamers over.” He’ll start the 2020 season as a weekly consideration, and likely stay there for quite some time.