NFL

T.J. Hockenson could be first tight end to win Rookie of Year

T.J. Hockenson of the Detroit Lions could make NFL history as the first ever tight end to win the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

It’s rare for a tight end to make any sort of real offensive impact in his first season in the NFL. The learning curve for the position generally takes even the most talented players some time before they grow into a dynamic threat. It’s the reason why veterans rule the Pro Bowl. It’s also the reason why a tight end has never won an Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

The NFL has awarded OROY to 52 different players and only three positions have ever accepted the honor: quarterback (9), running back (34), and wide receiver (9). That makes for long odds that a tight end will ever win the award. Fortunately for Detroit Lions rookie T.J. Hockenson (and perhaps for Noah Fant of the Denver Broncos), the planets have aligned for a first-ever win at the position.

First of all, Hockenson comes into the NFL as one of the most heralded tight ends of his generation. Only two tight ends have been selected as high as Hockenson in the last 20 NFL Drafts (Kellen Winslow, Jr. and Vernon Davis, who were both taken at No. 6 overall). His stock coming in should already place him in the spotlight with high expectations, even as a rookie.

As a No.  8 overall selection in a deep draft, Hockenson, a 6’5, 251 lb. tight end, should be in line for early targets with the Lions offense. Matt Stafford will enjoy having a Travis Kelce-esque target to utilize in the passing game, especially after losing Golden Tate in free agency to the New York Giants for a cool $37.5 million over four years. Pairing Kenny Golladay with Hockenson and Kerryon Johnson out of the backfield give the Lions a nice young offensive core in the North.

Hockenson was an early contributor at the University of Iowa with 73 catches as a freshman and sophomore there, good for 1,080 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns. He would have racked up further numbers in the Big Ten if given the chance, but there was no way his draft value would ever be higher than it already was in 2019. The good news for the Lions is that Hockenson is used to stepping right in and being a difference maker.

As for moving numbers on a league-wide scale, Hockenson is going to benefit from a lack of clear frontrunners for the job.

1. Every rookie quarterback is dealing with a pitiful roster around them

Think of this year’s candidates. Kyler Murray was the first overall selection, but the Arizona Cardinals are devoid of talent at several key positions with a subpar offensive line working with a brand new coaching staff for the second year in a row. Murray would have to be otherworldly to turn that ship around very quickly and he might find the pressure to be great.

Washington Redskins rookie Dwayne Haskins has even less offensive talent to work with than Murray. Daniel Jones will reportedly sit for the year behind Eli Manning with the New York Giants. Murray is the favorite for the OROY at this point, but it’s not even close to any sort of lock.

2. Every running back is working in a crowded backfield.

Only one running back was even taken in the first round this year—Josh Jacobs of the Oakland Raiders—and he’s running behind one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines. Doug Martin, Jalen Richard, and DeAndre Washington are also back from last year, a trio that accounted for 257 carries just last year.

Darrell Henderson is sitting behind Todd Gurley. David Montgomery joins a loaded backfield with the Chicago Bears. Damien Harris will share the load in New England. Miles Sanders will compete with Jordan Howard for reps in Philly. Justice Hill has a chance to breakout with the Ravens, and Bryce Love could do the same in Washington, but all of these are huge ifs.

3. Hockenson is as ready as any other pass catcher.

There are a lot of intriguing names at wide receiver this year, but are any of them really as talented as Hockenson? None were taken until 17 spots after the Iowa product in the first place and each of them are also wrestling for the level of opportunity in front of Hockenson.

Hollywood Brown has the goods to produce major dividends for the Ravens, but Baltimore’s run first offense could mute his production. Mecole Hardman has to sit behind numerous other targets in K.C. N’Keal Harry could post big numbers with Tom Brady under center, but how often does that happen for a rookie in New England?

Deebo Samuel has a nice chance to make an instant impact in San Francisco, and D.K. Metcalf could generate good stats in Seattle. Andy Isabella could also be an early favorite for Kyler Murray in the desert. But again, the talent level of each doesn’t equal the total package of Hockenson in Detroit.

The reality is that Hockenson is an early pick taken to provide instant offense on a team giving him every opportunity from day one. There is no competition. There are no hurdles. Talent and opportunity are the factors needed most to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award and, for the first time in NFL history, the greatest combination might be in the hands of a tight end.

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