Amid the disaster that was much of the Detroit Lions' 2020 season shined a beacon of hope at one position the team hasn't been able to rely on for some time.
As the Lions limped to a 5-11 finish in a season that saw the franchise fire its head coach immediately after its traditional Thanksgiving Day game, second-year tight end T.J. Hockenson posted a career year that was more like what Lions fans envisioned for him when Detroit made him the eighth overall pick in the 2019 draft.
Hockenson essentially doubled his receptions and receiving yards from year one to two, and tripled his scoring output, going from two touchdowns in 2019 to six in 2020. He also managed to appear in all 16 games after playing in 12 as a rookie.
The year-to-year development was obvious for the tight end, who earned his first Pro Bowl bid in 2020 after serving as a favorite target of the since-traded Matthew Stafford. His new position coach thinks there's even more room to improvement.
"There's plenty of meat still on the bone," tight ends coach Ben Johnson said recently, via the Lions’ official site. "We're looking forward to getting even more from him.
"The sky's the limit for this kid. I really look forward to seeing him take that next step."
Johnson is entering his first season as Detroit's tight ends coach under new head coach Dan Campbell, but Johnson has been in Detroit since 2019 as the team's quality control coach. He's had a front-row seat for Hockenson's entire professional career to this point.
So where can Hockenson improve? Catch percentage, for one. While Hockenson elevated his name near that of the league's elite tight ends thanks to his 723 yards (third most among all tight ends in the NFL) and six scores, he didn't quite haul in as many of his targets as did Travis Kelce and Darren Waller. Even in a shortened season, George Kittle still posted a catch percentage over 76 percent.
Hockenson's 66.3 percent certainly isn't awful -- as evidenced by his yardage output, it's not far off the premier standard -- but in order to take the next step and consume some of the meat on the aforementioned bone, he'll have to join Kelce, Waller and Kittle in the 70 percent and over club.
It's a lot to expect from a tight end who proved he can get close to that mark in just his second season, but did so with an established quarterback. Following the Stafford trade and changes on the sideline, Hockenson is going to be in a bit a of different world in 2021, one in which he'll have to develop a rapport with new signal-caller Jared Goff and gain an understanding of Detroit's new offense under coordinator Anthony Lynn.
If 2020 proved anything to us, though, it's that Hockenson isn't far from establishing himslef as a household name. His average yards gained after catch of 5.1 were near that of Waller, Kelce, Kittle, and Rob Gronkowski, and was slightly higher than 2020 Pro Bowl starter Evan Engram. It's also another area in which he can improve, finishing with a difference between average YAC and expected YAC of -0.2. The rest of the tight ends listed in this paragraph ended with a difference of +0.9 or better, per Next Gen Stats.
As Johnson said, there's plenty of meat still on the bone. 2021 might just be the year Hockenson cleans it.