Detroit Lions TE T.J. Hockenson preparing for bigger role on and off the field

Detroit Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson had 67 catches, 723 yards and 6 TDs in 2020, but he could be in store for even more work in 2021. Steven King/Icon Sportswire

Taking his foot off the gas isn’t an option for T.J. Hockenson entering Year 3, coming off his first Pro Bowl season with the Detroit Lions.

If anything, the 2020 season gave him a glimpse of his individual potential even with the team struggling to find an identity, finishing 5-11.

Hockenson, 23, has spent time this offseason training in Nashville, Tennessee, alongside his close friend and former Iowa teammate George Kittle in preparation for the 2021 season.

They’ve bonded through backyard BBQs and working out, but also appearing in a national ad together for Kingsford that aired on YouTube in April. Hockenson made a cameo in the 1-minute commercial as Kittle’s hype man.

Being in a national commercial is a rarity for a Lions player, but this appearance could help prep Hockenson for a pivotal role as the focal point of the team's offense, where he would receive plenty of media attention. This is a role he says he’s prepared for, certainly on the field.

“I love those die-hards ... just walking through the city of Detroit and just being able to see those guys, and you don’t walk anywhere without somebody knowing you, which is a really cool thing. But yeah, I’m preparing myself to be the best player that I can be, and I know my ceiling is high,” Hockenson told ESPN. “I know I can do what other people in this league do, and just being able to prepare myself for that. And maybe it doesn’t happen and maybe it does, but I’m just preparing to be the best that I can be, the best that Detroit wants me to be -- and trust me, there's not more of a critic about myself than myself.

“That’s another thing is I’m just trying to mute that out and to just do what I can do, and that’s all I can do,” he added. “That’s what I’m excited about this year is just being able to work with these new guys, work with these new draft picks, work with [Jared] Goff and be able to become that and know that I can do that. That’s something I’m excited about and something I think we’re working toward.”

Hockenson says he feels the team is “moving in the right direction” under new head coach Dan Campbell and first-year general manager Brad Holmes.

With Jared Goff now taking over at quarterback in Detroit after 12 seasons of Matthew Stafford at the helm, one of the biggest lingering questions following the draft is who will emerge as Goff’s primary target? All signs are pointing to Hockenson, following his breakout second-year season, when he produced 723 yards and 6 touchdowns on 67 catches.

“I’m excited. I’ve talked to T.J. a bunch, we’ve thrown together a handful of times, and he’s been great," Goff said. "He’s obviously a great player and has had a great first few years in the league, and hopefully we can continue to build on that. I want to hopefully get him some more targets and touches -- he’s one of our top guys on offense -- and see what he can do.”

In February, new Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn expressed his excitement to work with Hockenson, noting that he “did some nice things last year,” and that he views “his ceiling as even higher.”

Hockenson could take a huge leap this season with the new regime in place. That upside is part of the reason why the Lions picked him as the eighth overall pick of the 2019 draft. The move was criticized by some because of him being a tight end.

However, now guys like Hockenson and Kittle are changing the narrative on modern-day NFL tight ends with their Pro Bowl success. So much so that the Atlanta Falcons made history by selecting Florida tight end Kyle Pitts with the No. 4 overall pick in this year’s draft, which was the earliest a tight end has been drafted in the common draft era.

Prior to that, a tight end had been the first pass-catcher off the board in a draft only twice: 1973, when Charle Young was taken sixth by the Philadelphia Eagles, and 2019, when Hockenson was taken eighth overall by the Lions.

“He’s a good player," Hockenson said of Pitts. "He’s very athletic. The league is the league, but he’s going to be all right. He’s gonna do a good job, so I saw that and I’m excited for him. That’s tight ends. That’s just tight end love. You’ve got to do it. So, I’m always excited for fellow tight ends for sure.”

Before becoming Detroit’s head coach, Campbell was a former NFL tight end and served as the tight ends coach for the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins, so he knows the position inside and out. In his new full-time role, Hockenson is still getting to know the sideline leader, but he likes what he sees.

“Coach Campbell is one of those guys; he’s a player’s coach. He wants you to talk to him. He wants you to reach out to him and tell him what’s going on,” Hockenson said. “He doesn’t care. He just doesn’t want any BS, and we all get that. We don’t want that either. So, I think we’re all on the same page in that aspect and we’re all really excited to get this ball rolling.

“Obviously, we got [Penei] Sewell, and that’s just another piece to our puzzle that we can use, and I think if you ask anybody on this team, I think we’re all ready to get this thing rolling and ready to get started because the sky’s the limit,” he continued. “It really is for this team and this coaching staff. So, the city of Detroit, I hope they’re ready. Don’t get too [excited], but I’m just saying I’m excited and I think y’all will be too.”