As a child develops, we expect them to learn how to color inside the lines. As a football player develops, it can be their ability to go outside the lines that can set them apart from their peers.
That’s been an important component to the second-year improvement of T.J. Hockenson. After learning the playbook his first offseason, the Detroit Lions tight end made sure to adhere to every design as it was drawn up, in fear of being singled out by the coaching staff when reviewing the film.
Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson is on pace for more than 800 yards receiving this season. (Photo: Danny Karnik, Associated Press)
“I think especially coming in as a rookie, you don’t want to do anything wrong,” Hockenson said. “You want to run a route as it’s written, rather than running it to win. I guess the biggest thing (I’ve learned) is no one is going to tell you you’re wrong if you win and you catch the ball, right?”
With more than a season and a half of experience under his belt, Hockenson has learned that the ability to ad lib within a design, to adjust to the circumstances, can be the difference between making the play.
“I think he understands the routes,” Lions tight ends coach Ben Johnson said this week. “He understands how to run routes. Something we talk about is, in this offense, the lines that we put up in terms of the plays, those are what us coaches draw. But, the beauty of him and all of our route runners is they’re the artists. They make those lines come to life. I think he’s really taken that approach, particularly the last few weeks in terms of saying, “Hey, the release, I can make it look however I want to get this defender off-balance, tumbled and be able to get separation to the top of the route.'”
Whatever subtle adjustments Hockenson has made, they’re working. In 12 games last season, he finished with 32 catches for 367 yards and two touchdowns. This year, through the same number of games, he’s netted 52 grabs for 614 and five scores.
A year after being selected No. 8 overall in the NFL Draft, he’s on pace for a 800-yard, seven-touchdown campaign. To put that into perspective, only eight tight ends have accomplished that statistical pairing in the Super Bowl era. That stat line is also remarkably similar to Travis Kelce’s second season, when he finished with 862 yards and five touchdowns.
Obviously, Hockenson has a long way to go before he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Kelce, who has racked up 1,000 yard receiving a record five straight seasons for a tight end and is trending toward his All-Pro honors for the third time in his career.
But, if nothing else, Hockenson is on the right track.
When the Lions evaluate where Hockenson is making the biggest strides, it’s been less about what he’s doing on Sundays and more about his approach Monday through Saturday.
Johnson said the team laid out a challenge to Hockenson this spring about being professional — approach every meeting, every practice and every off-field treatment a certain way. It’s something Hockenson already had been thinking about since he arrived in the league, realizing he was a 22-year-old who knew so little compared to the veterans in the locker room who had been doing this for years.
Asked the biggest thing he’s learned, Hockenson noted it’s the way he’s taking care of his body.
“Just the amount of toll this game puts on your body and just being able to counteract that with physical therapy, ice, with other things to rejuvenate it,” he said. “I guess that’s the biggest thing. Coming in, I would be sore last year and I’d be like, ‘All right, I’ll go rest,’ rather than, oh, all right, I’ll go home and do ice and I’ll do roll out and I’ll stretch and get a massage, do different things. ‘
“I think that’s kinda been the difference this year is that I try to do my things,” he continued. “I’m sore after a game and I try to rejuvenate as much as I can before Wednesday’s practice and then try to leave it out there. … I mean, you build your body up to break it down on Sunday. That’s something I’ve had to learn.”
Now 23 years old, Hockenson has the approach of a older, wiser player, which should pay dividends down the road, particularly with his durability.
“I’m a young player right now, but I’m not going to be in five years and I guess that’s what you have to look at, how’s my body going to feel in five years?,” he said. “I have to do the most for it right now for it to feel the best it can. It’s a learning process — it really is — year in and year out. Next year, I’m going to learn more than I know now, you know?”