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High Priority: T.J. Hockenson

By: Nate Williams

The tight end position is one that regularly goes undervalued and underappreciated in fantasy football. There exists three TEs who have established themselves as the clear-cut tier-one guys for fantasy managers: Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Darren Waller. After the big 3, there was a considerable drop-off last season. However, in 2021 there is another TE that is ready to break out and join the big 3 - T.J. Hockenson of the Detroit Lions.

Speaking of undervalued and underappreciated, Hockenson fits that bill to a tee.

Standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 249-pounds, Hockenson played his college ball at the University of Iowa. In his rookie year with the Hawkeye’s, he caught 24 passes for 320 yards over 13 games in 2017. He followed that up in his sophomore season with a breakout effort, recording 49 catches for 760 yards and six TDs en route to winning the John Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end. He was a first-team All-American and the best at the position in the country.

In 2019 he was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, as was his college teammate, Noah Fant. Hockenson went to Detroit with the 8th pick overall, while Fant was selected 20th overall by the Denver Broncos.

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Hockenson Hype Train

It didn’t take long for T.J. to make an impact once arriving in the Motor City. He only started in seven games as a first-year pro, but in his second year he improved drastically. He started all 16 games, posting 67 receptions for 723 yards and six TDs.

So what to expect from TJ in 2021?

I expect a breakout year and for TJ to make the jump to the elite tier of tight ends.

When people think of the Lions’ offense, they generally think of how bad it will be due to the exodus of many skilled players. New head coach Dan Campbell and new general manager Brad Holmes wasted little time starting to “re-tool” the organization. Early in the offseason, they made a trade that shook the foundation of Mo-Town, sending longtime franchise QB Matthew Stafford to the Los Angles Rams in return for Jared Goff and draft picks. As a fan of the Lions, I wasn’t surprised but I was still highly disappointed. Detroit's top two WRs in Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones were also shown the door.

This offense is not going to come out and set the league on fire with Goff under center, but he might just be one of the best-case scenarios in terms of fantasy football. Primarily for guys like Hockenson, RB D’Andre Swift, and rookie WR Amon-Ra St. Brown. The aforementioned players are going to absorb all of the short-yardage passes, while, the field-stretchers such as Brashad Perriman and Tyrell Williams may struggle to find consistent production.

When we look at Goff, one of the first things I notice is his attentiveness when it comes to the tight end position.

I know what you’re probably thinking. “The Rams hardly ever had a fantasy-relevant player at the tight end position.” You would be correct. Outside of a six-game stretch, Tyler Higbee was pretty much a low-tier fantasy tight end. The reason for this however is because the Rams rarely send their tight ends out on routes, as head coach Sean McVay prefers to use them to block.

When the tight ends did run routes, however, Goff threw to them 25 percent of the time. At the same time in Detroit, Stafford was doing so 21 percent of the time. In turn, when the Rams tight ends were running routes, they were getting more targets-per-routes-ran, (TPRR) than Hockenson was in the Motor City. This great TPRR also came at the same time Los Angles had a dominant receiver in the slot in Cooper Kupp. Targets per routes ran, established by Jacob Gibbs of Sportsline, is one of my favorite statistics to look at and it has a clear correlation with fantasy success. Hockenson stands out, especially for his age. He will be just 24-years-old when the season starts this fall.

When you combine Goff’s reliance on short-yardage throws to the tight end, and Hockenson’s already increasing TPRR through two years as a pro, you have to expect great things for 2021 -- primarily in PPR formats.

Up for the Challenge

The path to success may not be paved in gold for Hockenson. Gone from the Lions receiving corps from last year are Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola. Considering everything we have already talked about, there is a good chance other teams key in on TJ as the number one target for Goff.

TJ realizes this and is up for the challenge as he enters his third season in the NFL and he told ESPN's Eric Woodyard he's ready for the challenge.

"I'm preparing myself to be the best player that I can be, and I know my ceiling is high," Hockenson said. "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 great outlook and attitude make TJ that much more appealing. When we take a look at his ADP it becomes obvious that he’s no longer a “buy-low” candidate for fantasy. According to FantasyPros, TJ is currently listed as the consensus No. 64 pick in standard-scoring leagues, No. 66 in PPR, and No. 5 overall at the tight end position in PPR.

If you’re in a start-up, be it redraft or dynasty, chances are Kelce is going in the first two rounds with Kittle and Waller shortly after. With TJ you can probably wait until rounds five or six, giving yourself the ability to grab more foundational pieces at either QB, RB or WR.

By waiting and taking Hockenson, particularly in dynasty or keeper leagues, you’re also getting a player who is still just 23-years-old. Doing so, puts you in a position for many years of success.

The third year of a young football player’s career tends to be the year he breaks out. TJ has already demonstrated a very promising trajectory over his first two years in Detroit. By adding Goff to the mix, it actually only helps increase the chances of us as owners having a fourth tight end added to that tier-one list of names at the position.

One of the most successful recipes for success in fantasy sports is to land a player before they become unaffordable. With TJ, this offseason is your last chance to strike and land him at an affordable price.

If you’re still not sold, perhaps this video of Hockenson and Kittle shooting a commercial together will be enough to convince you!

Thank you for reading my article. Agree or disagree with my prediction of T.J. Hockenson for 2021? Please leave a comment or message me @TrueNorth_Nate

Editor: Joe Simonetti (@joesimonetti77)

Graphic work: Dan Made Graphics (@DanMadeGraphics)