Tight ends don’t get drafted often in the first round. Even more rare is the tight end selected in the top 10. But T.J. Hockenson isn't bothered by it. In fact, he’s convinced playing in a pro-style offense at Iowa under Kirk Ferentz will help him.
“Tight end is a unique position, it really is,” said Hockenson, No. 8 overall by the Detroit Lions. “There’s a lot of different things that go into it and there’s a lot of different aspects that you need to learn.”
There will be higher expectations for Hockenson because only 16 tight ends prior to him were picked in the top 10. And history has not been kind to tight ends selected in the first round, according to Pro Football Reference: Only one top-10 tight end, Mike Ditka to the Chicago Bears in 1961, has reached the Hall of Fame.
Ditka is also tied for the highest a tight end has been taken at that time – fifth overall along with Riley Odoms (Denver, 1972). Thrice, a tight end has gone at No. 6: Vernon Davis in 2006 (San Francisco), Kellen Winslow II in 2004 (Cleveland) and Charle Young in 1973 (Philadelphia).
Davis has had the most productive career of any top-10 tight end with 573 catches for 7,439 yards and 62 touchdowns – the leader of top 10 tight ends in every category. Of the 16 tight ends prior to Hockenson, 10 played in at least 100 games. Eric Ebron, who was taken by the Lions at No. 10 in 2014 and signed with the Colts last offseason, is on pace to go over 100 as well. Eleven of those tight ends had over 100 career receptions. Twelve had double-digit touchdowns.
Combined, top-10 tight ends have made 24 Pro Bowls – Ditka had the most, with five – and eight first-team Associated Press All-Pro selections.
All except Junior Miller (No. 7, Atlanta, 1980), Ken MacAfee (No. 7, San Francisco, 1978), Paul Seymour (No. 7, Buffalo, 1973) and Tom Hutchinson (No. 9, Cleveland, 1963) played at least seven NFL seasons, or in Ebron’s case are on pace for that. Another, J.V. Cain (No. 7, St. Louis, 1974), had become a starter but died of congenital heart failure during training camp in 1979.
In all, taking a tight end in the first round hasn’t been exceedingly popular since 1960. Hockenson and Noah Fant are the 61st and 62nd players taken in the first round at the position – 24 since 2000. Success has been varied. Four players are in the Hall of Fame: Tony Gonzalez (No. 13, Kansas City, 1997), Kellen Winslow Sr. (No. 13, San Diego, 1979), Ozzie Newsome (No. 23, Cleveland, 1978) and Ditka. At least three others – Greg Olsen, Heath Miller and Davis – might one day have a case for induction.
So if history is a guide, Hockenson should have at least a productive career. Just don’t expect a ton of it as a rookie.
Ditka is the only tight end to have a 1,000-yard season as a rookie with 1,076 yards, in 1961. Three others – Jeremy Shockey, Keith Jackson and Young – had over 800 yards. Only 31 tight ends have had rookie years with over 500 receiving yards.
Some of the best tight ends in history had mild production as rookies. Rob Gronkowski – a player Hockenson is compared to – had 42 catches for 546 yards as a rookie, but he had 10 touchdowns. Newsome had 38 catches for 589 yards and John Mackey had 35 catches for 726 yards.
Of those who had at least 500 receiving yards, 10 came since 2000, including Mark Andrews (34 catches, 552 yards) and Chris Herndon (39 catches, 502 yards) last season. Andrews was Baltimore’s third-round pick and Herndon a fourth-round pick of the Jets.
Keith Jackson had the most receptions of any rookie tight end – 81 in 1988. The only others with over 60 catches are Shockey (74) and Evan Engram (64). Only nine had 50 or more catches, five as rookies after 2000. Only two rookie tight ends had 10 or more touchdowns – Gronkowski and Ditka. A third, Junior Miller, had nine in 1980. Only 25 total had five or more touchdowns in their rookie seasons – including undrafted Joseph Fauria for the Lions in 2013, with seven.
In other words, understand that while the Lions are hoping for big things from Hockenson – it might not come in Year 1.
One benefit for Hockenson is the offense he’ll play in. Matt Patricia hired Darrell Bevell for his adaptability but also his commitment to running the ball wherever he has called plays. He also has found a way to get the tight end involved.
When Bevell has had a good tight end, he has found ways to use him. In his 12 years as an offensive coordinator, he has had a tight end with over 500 yards receiving in half of those seasons. Three came from Jimmy Graham his final three years with the Seahawks and three from Visanthe Shiancoe his last three years with Minnesota. Twice – Graham in 2017 and Shiancoe in 2009 – has a tight end had 10 or more touchdowns catches.
Other years, when he had Luke Willson, Zach Miller and Jermaine Wiggins, the tight ends didn’t have as much production. If Hockenson can live up to what the Lions are hoping for, he has a chance to join Graham and Shiancoe sooner than later.
A 40-catch season with over 500 yards is definitely possible in Year 1. For the Lions, it would be a good start.