Matt Waldman shares a sample RSP NFL Draft Scouting Report on Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson, who is off to a strong start in 2019 training camp.
T.J. Hockenson, Iowa (6-4, 251)
Depth of Talent Score: 86.7 = Starter: Starting immediately with a large role and learning on the go.
If there was time, I’d re-evaluate Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Dennis Pitta through the current RSP evaluation framework to see how the top of that class compares to 2019’s group. I’m curious because Hockenson and Irv Smith, Jr. have earned two of the highest grades I’ve awarded at the position.
Hockenson and Smith lack the extreme skill we saw from Gronkowski and Hernandez as ball carriers and receivers at their best. However, they possess versatile games that will translate immediately. Hockenson’s game reminds me of Pitta and Hockenson’s Iowa predecessor, George Kittle.
Hockenson is skilled enough as a blocker that he should see a starting lineup right away. He’s capable of hooking, driving, cutting off, stalking, and reach-blocking all three levels of defenders on the field. His notable foot and hand quickness shows up on cut-off blocks. He has an excellent pivot to earn a position on defensive ends, linebackers, and safeties, and he’s able to reset his footing and hand position when engaged with an opponent.
Hockenson has violent, sticky hands as a puncher who can latch onto larger opponents and control them with leverage. As a reach blocker, Hockenson arrives at the second level fast and once he punches, his hands don’t leave the opponent.
He has strong knowledge of leverage spots to push or turn an opponent and this is an excellent complement to a technically sound punch. Hockenson approaches linemen and linebackers with low pads, delivers his arms with an uppercut motion, rolls through his hips to generate a push, and begins moving his feet to drive the opponent backward. When he can do these things and adjust his arms to steer the opponent, Hockenson is on his way to pushing the opponent well past the range of the ball carrier or serving a stack of pancakes.
Hockenson is good at coming off the line and using the opponent’s initial angle to his advantage—turning the defender away from the ball carrier. One of the quickest tight ends in this draft, he’s skilled at reach-blocking or cut-blocking edge defenders. Hockenson’s quickness also helps him set up sound redirects to re-establish leverage.
Whether it’s with power or finesse, Hockenson displays the ability to earn the initial position, fight to maintain it, and use a different approach if taken out of position. On plays where his assignment is away from the path of the ball, Hockenson hustles to stay with his assignment, even when that defender continues pursuing down the line after an initially successful block. Even when he’s losing the interaction, he continues working and doesn’t give up.
He’s quick enough to work down the line and then cut off a linebacker across the field. You don’t see this often from college prospects. Hockenson is more than an in-line tight end. He’s capable of strong work as an H-Back who can wind across the formation to seal pursuit or work into the line of scrimmage as a lead blocker. He takes strong angles into the crease as a lead blocker from the wing, meeting a linebacker shooting the gap, and knocking the defender sideways.
Hockenson’s movements are controlled, but not stiff. He can set up play action with a down block for two beats then release to the flat. He’ll stay with a defender as a shield blocker in space and bait the opponent into taking himself out of the play on screen passes. He’s quick to his spot as a stalk blocker and uses excellent footwork to setup double-teams as the inside man pivoting to the opponent.
Although Hockenson has some highlight moments against larger defenders, you’ll see played on a loop during the week of the NFL Draft, he’s not Superman. Defensive ends can bull rush him and execute push-pull moves to cast the tight end aside. He won’t always reach the opposite side of the line in time as a wind-back blocker and can struggle with positioning on stalk blocks.
Hockenson has the physical and technical tools to block in the NFL. Learning a new offense while adjusting to the upgrade in the competition will be the challenges. If he proves a quick study, he should see the field early as no worse than a second tight end. It’s Hockenson’s blocking that could earn him a starting job right away. However, if he isn’t quite ready for that responsibility, his skill as a receiver will get him on the field as a second tight end.
Although Noah Fant earned a lot of public praise, Hockenson often earned a decent amount of bracket coverage from opposing defenses. Late in games, I noticed defenses were most concerned about Hockenson, not Fant. And Hockenson was able to work through these brackets with good technique.
Hockenson’s acumen as a blocker aids his work as an inline receiver or slot man. He has a good feel for establishing position in tight spaces. He uses shoulder reductions, double wipes, rips, and arm-over releases in conjunction with footwork to set up defenders inside-out or outside-in. His releases are quick and earn him immediate separation on shorter routes.
Hockenson runs stems with proper length and good pace variation to sell a route. He’ll punctuate his stems with a jab step (stick) or, occasionally, a violent head fake that snaps 90 degrees to the opposite side of his eventual breakpoint. Once at the top of his stem, he’ll also use the arm-over effectively against off coverage meeting him over top.
His breaks will get him open in the NFL. He executes flat breaks on short routes and his hip mobility is good enough to execute 90-degree turns with a snap. When running routes with hard breaks, he sinks his weight and decelerates to a sudden stop.
Hockenson integrates these skills well with intermediate and vertical routes—especially double-moves. He runs an effective corner-post. He also sets up defenders with pace variation and a stutter to earn separation on the curl—breaking back to the ball effectively.
Hockenson catches with his hands away from his frame and possesses a wide catch radius and boundary awareness. He knows how to slide both feet at the boundary and displays this skill on high, low, and wide targets.
Hockenson tracks the ball over his shoulder and can adjust his frame in the air to win the ball. A sturdy player, he’ll make the catch and take the hit.
His physicality is also on display as a runner. He’ll drive defensive backs downfield when he drops the pads on them in the open field. Linebackers and safeties must hit and wrap Hockenson or he’ll pull through their grasp. He’ll also take a defender for a ride if they hop on his back.
Most often, it’s Hockenson’s quickness that comes to the forefront when he’s a ball carrier. He makes the first man miss with quick transitions upfield, using a stiff-arm to ward off reaches from the pursuit. He makes quick turns upfield and he can dip away from opponents. Combine his first-step quickness, acceleration, and balance, and Hockenson will earn moderate gains after the catch— sometimes a lot more because he can run through multiple points of contact.
Hockenson’s ball carriage is a little loose at the elbow but it is sound overall. He’ll switch the ball to the arm away from the pursuit when there are time and space to do so. Hockenson’s game isn’t as exciting as his peers, but it’s the most refined. This refinement earned Hockenson more of the dirty work while Fant earned more of the glory targets. Look for Hockenson to earn greater glory in the NFL as a receiver and a productive full-time role.
He’ll be a good fit for any team that needs an in-line tight end. However, it’s an offense that uses a lot of shifts and moves Hockenson around the formation as a slot, wing, and in-line option that will maximize his talents.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: There are better than average odds that Hockenson’s blocking will be good enough for him to start. If he’s drafted by a needy team like the Broncos, Lions, Packers (Graham looks slow), Jaguars, Saints, or Raiders, he could start immediately.
He’d be a nice fit in Green Bay or New Orleans. He’s an early pick in 1.5 PPR formats and an acceptable choice at the 2-3 turn in normal PPR leagues—maybe earlier if he lands on an NFL team with a great quarterback.
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