ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Before Bob Quinn became general manager of the Detroit Lions, he enjoyed a front-row seat in the New England Patriots’ front office watching Rob Gronkowski, the greatest tight end of this era, blossom into a superstar.
So when Quinn selected Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson with the eighth overall pick in this year’s NFL draft — after a failed attempt to trade for Gronkowski 12 months prior — it wasn’t hard to make the connection. At 6-foot-5 and a listed 251 pounds, Hockenson is big like Gronk. He’s also athletic, can catch the ball and has a nasty streak as a run blocker. Hell, Hockenson’s last name even has the same number of syllables as Gronkowski’s.
Still, the selection was met with trepidation by a sizable portion of the Lions’ tortured fan base, largely due to what happened the last time the team took a tight end in the top 10, when they selected Eric Ebron 10th overall in 2014 ahead of Los Angeles Rams superstar Aaron Donald.
That’s why, shortly after Hockenson’s selection, Quinn was promptly asked if he’d address the Lions’ recent tight end history with his new tight end.
“I didn’t draft [Ebron], so I haven’t addressed it with T.J.,” Quinn told Yahoo Sports during a wide-ranging conversation last week in Detroit.
“He’s a very smart guy who understands everyone’s different.”
Yet, to take a tight end eighth overall — ahead of University of Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver and University of Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush Jr., who went ninth and 10th and are already impressing the Bills and Steelers, respectively — Quinn shares that belief.
While the GM would never in a million years compare any young player to Gronk, Hockenson has already given the Lions reasons to believe he can live up to his high draft slot.
“He checked every box throughout the evaluation process,” Quinn said.
There’s a desired nasty streak
Quinn takes a deep breath, thinks for a split second and smiles. After being asked to recall the moment he knew Hockenson would be special, the memory comes to him in a flash.
“The bowl game against Mississippi State,” Quinn said. “He turned a 3-yard gain into a 25-yard gain with sheer effort. On that one play you could see his determination, his pass-game ability, his toughness and his willingness to break tackles.”
Lions GM Bob Quinn loved T.J. Hockenson's effort on this play. pic.twitter.com/dy1WeNel24— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) August 11, 2019
Quinn, who watched two years’ worth of Hockenson’s college tape, said the play best encapsulates the effort Hockenson consistently gave, which fit in with the hard-nosed football team he has spent four offseasons trying to build.
The play also encapsulated Hockenson’s receiving ability, which the Lions feel can be Pro Bowl caliber. Athletically, Hockenson’s got the goods; he tested out at the scouting combine as an elite physical tester for his position, with great explosion and agility for his size.
It shows up on tape in his run-after-catch ability, an area the elite NFL tight ends he has studied — from the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce to yes, the recently retired Gronk — thrive in. It also shows up in his ability as a contested-catch weapon, an area Hockenson appreciated about Gronk.
“He uses his body really well in shielding a guy off,” Hockenson told Yahoo Sports this past week, referring to Gronk. “That’s something I’ve tried to do.”
The Lions believe Hockenson's high-point ability can make him a red-zone weapon. pic.twitter.com/xIDMBnrHWF— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) August 12, 2019
An additional area where Gronk really shined on tape was his run-blocking ferocity. And while no one expects Hockenson to reach Gronk’s level there, teammates appreciate the rookie’s temperament.
“He’s nasty,” running back C.J. Anderson told Yahoo Sports. “He’s a dog — he’s gonna be a good player.”
‘It didn’t matter what game you put on’
In the NFL, many defenses cover big, strong and quick tight ends with corners, which takes the tight end out of the passing game but can make the defense vulnerable to the run, provided the tight end can block. But in today’s pass-happy era of football, there are fewer tight ends who can do that and be dynamic in the passing game. Gronk, to be sure, was one of them, and Hockenson, Quinn insists, could be another.
“It didn’t matter what game you put on, the one thing that you could hang your hat on is that he was blocking at a very good level against any level of competition,” Quinn said, referring to Hockenson’s college tape. “That’s what was so great about it.”
At Iowa, Hockenson often fired out of his stance low and struck defenders violently. He also played through the whistle, displaying a ferocity that is rare for tight ends in the modern era.
“I love to block, I love getting after guys along the line of scrimmage,” Hockenson said.
The Lions believe Hockenson's rare blocking ability for his position can one day make him a matchup nightmare. pic.twitter.com/BEM7bcR9wP— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) August 11, 2019
And here’s the thing: The Lions believe Hockenson, who declared for the draft after his redshirt sophomore season and just turned 22 in July, still has room to grow physically.
“You see him, he’s got a baby face — he’s a kid,” Quinn said. “So I think all those things will improve over time. He plays strong, but the playing strength will improve as he matures.”
The Lions think it’s not a stretch to wonder if Hockenson could one day play closer to 260 pounds ... which isn’t far off from Gronk’s listed playing weight of 265.
“You gotta be stronger, because these guys are ridiculous — huge,” Hockenson said.
But while Hockenson’s abundance of natural talent lends itself toward making a long-term impact, there’s another reason to believe he could deliver on his considerable promise sooner rather than later.
A promising start
Matthew Stafford’s eyes widen, and his inflection changes.
This is Aug. 7, minutes after the final joint practice between the Lions and Patriots, and while the Lions’ starting quarterback is an expert at avoiding potentially inflammatory answers, it’s clear he’s excited to talk about his rookie tight end.
Over the course of the previous three practices, Hockenson had flashed some of the ability that caused the Lions to fall in love with him. In the second practice against the Patriots, he even caught a seam route for a touchdown — a Gronk special.
And throughout it all, he communicated often on the sideline with Stafford, trying to get a sense for what the 11-year vet is looking for.
“Tight end’s a really tough position to come in and play well early if you look at this historically, but he’s done a really nice job, whether it be in practices with New England or ourselves,” Stafford told Yahoo Sports. “He’s got just a little bit of a savvy for a young guy when it comes to route running; he’s just got great feel, nothing seems too big for him at the moment. We’ll see how it goes, we haven’t played a game with him yet. But I just like his work ethic, he seems to be a great teammate and I know the guys in the tight end room really like working with him.”
And when the season opener against Arizona on Sept. 8 rolls around, it would hardly be a surprise to see the Lions attempt to exploit their newfound size at tight end. In addition to Hockenson, the Lions signed another big, versatile tight end in the 6-foot-7, 260-pound Jesse James, all in hopes of forcing defenses to make matchup choices the Lions could theoretically exploit.
“It was well known that the tight end group was not a strong point for us last year,” Quinn said.
The Lions, who are coming off a 6-10 season, are banking on that turning around this year, thanks in part to the presence of a rookie they’re counting on to at least bring some Gronk-ish elements — though all involved steadfastly refuse to make the outward comparison. When asked recently how important it was for him to stay away from comparisons to the greatest tight end of the past 20 years, Hockenson just nodded his head and grinned.
“Very,” Hockenson said with a laugh. “I haven’t done anything in this league yet; I still need to prove myself and that’s what I’m coming out here every single day to do — to try to belong.”
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