Fantasy tight ends typically contain around three players that make a difference, three more that have some potential, and then the rest just do not matter. That means owning an elite fantasy tight end is an advantage that few can hope to acquire.
And that means T.J. Hockenson won’t be waiting very long to hear his name called in your fantasy draft.
In the 2019 NFL draft, Hockenson was drafted by the Lions with their 1.08 pick out of Iowa. His teammate Noah Fant was actually the second tight end drafted that year with the 1.20 pick by the Broncos. That’s the same school that provided the NFL with a 5.02 pick in 2017 – George Kittle of the 49ers. Iowa is considered a tight-end factory.
Hockenson only played two years in college. His sophomore season was his career high with 49 receptions for 760 yards and six touchdowns. By comparison, Fant ended with 39 receptions for 519 yards and seven scores and both led the Hawkeyes in receiving yards and scores that year.
The 6-5, 251 pound first-rounder ran a 4.7 40-time at the 2019 NFL combine as a “faster than most” tight end. He came into the league noted for his athleticism, versatility, quickness, crisp route-running and value as a target over the middle. All of which led the Lions to spend that eighth overall pick on a tight end.
Hockenson’s scoring was limited to the first half of the year when he reeled in five touchdowns over the first eight games of the season. He remained productive in catches. His second season ended with solid positional ranks considering targets (101 – No. 5), catches (67 – No.4), yards (723 – No. 3), and touchdowns (6 – No. 9).
The 2021 season
The outlook for Hockenson is bright, and he’s regularly drafted as the No. 4 tight end in fantasy drafts this summer, behind only Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, and George Kittle. That’s translated into fifth to sixth-round selections, though his draft stock creeps higher each week as more drafters seek value in their fantasy tight end without an earlier-pick price tag.
While Hockenson turned in a breakout performance (in the tight end world) last year, he encounters a few significant differences between that season, and 2021 that could help or hinder his continued improvement.
First, there’s a turning of the soil in coaches and scheme. Head coach Dan Campbell takes over, and his most recent stint was as the tight ends coach for the Saints from 2016 to 2020. The only instance of a notable tight end for the Saints in those years was Jared Cook (2019: 43-705-9) to rank No. 7 that season. Then again, you cannot equate much between the high-powered Saints mature offense stocked with talent and the perpetually rebuilding Lions.
That points at another critical element in the 2021 Lions – who else is there to catch the passes? The Lions lost Matt Stafford, Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay, and Mohamed Sanu. The passing game now revolves around Jared Goff, Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman, Quintez Cephus, and the rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown. And Hockenson.
Maybe mostly Hockenson.
A new “Saints-esque” offense is being installed with all new starters in the passing game other than Hockenson. Goff used tight ends as a Ram, and their unit ranked No. 9 in positional catches and yards last year. There is no clear No. 1 wideout in the mishmash of ho-hum talent they assembled for Year 1 of the Dan Campbell Rebuild. Hockenson stands out as a likely target who already was targeted 101 times in 2020.
Lastly, the Lions face one of the worst schedules in the NFL this year. That won’t help the new offense to come together quickly, but it will make a tall tight end with capable hands over the middle even more attractive. Hockenson was already knocking at the door of the Top-3 fantasy tight ends last year. This year should see him take a seat at the elite table and reward the shrew drafters looking for tight end value after grabbing a few running backs and wide receivers.