After a fairly disappointing rookie season in 2019 (32 catches for 367 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games), Detroit Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson had a breakout in 2020 (67 receptions for 723 yards and six touchdowns). His 101 targets were fifth-most among tight ends, as he finished as TE5 in standard and full PPR (TE4 in half PPR).
As a percentage of his snaps, Hockenson wasn’t used all that differently in his first two seasons. After being deployed out of the slot for 36 percent of his snaps as a rookie, he saw 33.2 percent of his snaps out of the slot last year. Better health, for himself and then-quarterback Matthew Stafford, drove a boost in production.
With a new GM (Brad Holmes) and head coach (Dan Campbell) in place, the Lions are entering a rebuild. Wide receivers Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones departed in free agency. Danny Amendola remains available, but he’s not coming back. In their place Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman were signed, and Amon-Ra St. Brown was drafted in the fourth round. Golladay only played five games last year. But Jones and Amendola are leaving behind 184 targets between the two of them.
Stafford was traded to the Los Angeles Rams, in a deal that brought back Jared Goff. Goff will not be challenged as the Lions’ starting quarterback this year, for better or worse. The downgrade in quarterback isn’t great for Hockenson. But on the other hand, Goff’s limitations may not be all bad.
T.J. Hockenson 2021 Fantasy Outlook
As much as strength of schedule is meaningful as a projection tool, and I say it’s at least limited, some analysis to that angle is not optimistic on Hockenson. Pro Football Focus has given Detroit the fourth-toughest tight end schedule in the league. Dave Richard of CBS Sports has given the Lions the worst schedule for tight ends (Week 1-17). Fantasy Pros tabs Detroit’s tight end schedule as neutral for 2021.
PFF sees a light of optimism for Hockenson, citing seven favorable (top-12) matchups. Richard pointed out Hockenson’s dismal track record against divisional opponents. In 10 career games against the Packers, Lions and Bears, he has averaged 4.6 catches and less than 43 yards per game with three total touchdowns.
Right in line with his 2020 finish, Hockenson is coming in as TE5 in 12-team standard and full PPR mocks right now. Going a little deeper, he’s pick 6.02 and 5.10 respectively in those scoring formats right now (via Fantasy Football Calculator). Getting to a repeat of last year’s finish might be a roller coaster. But looking at 2020’s game log, there were ups and downs. Hockenson could easily best last season’s numbers, driven purely by volume.
The balance of a bad offense and being a prominent target in it will be a tricky one for those who consider drafting Hockenson. Plenty of negative game scripts may be in store, despite Campbell bringing an old-school run-oriented philosophy with him. Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn’s best offenses with the Chargers were either high-volume or efficient in the passing game. Lynn also knew how to use the tight end position.
With the downgrade from Stafford to Goff, Hockenson being the fifth tight end off the board in a fantasy draft feels rich. But Goff had an average throw depth of 6.1 yards in 2020. That was third-worst among 44 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts, per Sports Info Solutions. Hockenson had the fourth-most yards after the catch among tight ends last year (minimum 50 targets). He also had the ninth-best target share at the position (17.9 percent).
A 20 percent target share is an easy projection for Hockenson this year. How that will translate to raw targets in a Lions’ offense that’s expected to be worse is hard to tab, but an uptick across the board is in play. Let’s start with 115 targets, and give him 75-80 catches, 840-850 yards and 7-10 touchdowns. That’d be a top-5 fantasy tight end, albeit with downside potential based on team situation and what can be considered a bad schedule. If Goff were to be injured, the outlook for the entire Detroit offense would go in the tank.
It’s a mistake to ignore players on bad teams in fantasy drafts. People will produce for the Lions this year, and Hockenson is among those who will be a fantasy asset.