The NFL is a copycat league – and general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia of the Detroit Lions know better than anyone whom to copy.
Which explains why the Lions spent the eighth overall pick of the 2019 NFL draft on Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson. That’s the first time a tight end has been drafted in the Top 10 in 13 years.
Once upon a time Quinn and Patricia cashed paychecks from the New England Patriots. Both watched the impact tight end Rob Gronkowski had in the 2000 decade on the Patriots, not to mention quarterback Tom Brady. In Gronkowski’s nine seasons the Patriots went to eight AFC title games, five Super Bowls and won three Lombardi Trophies.
Gronkowski set NFL records for the tight-end position in 2011 with his 1,327 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. He went to five Pro Bowls and was voted first-team all-pro four times. He averaged a staggering 21.6 yards per catch in 2016 and scored three career touchdowns of 50-plus yards.
Bill Belichick knew the coverage headaches a player the size and speed of Gronkowski could cause. At 6-6, 268 pounds, he could muscle cornerbacks and safeties. And with 4.6 speed, linebackers couldn’t run with him. Edge, Patriots.
With Gronkowski leading the way this decade, tight ends have evolved from “weapon” to “primary weapon” in NFL offenses. There have been five 100-catch seasons by tight ends in NFL history and two of them came this past season. Zach Ertz set an NFL tight-end position record with 116 receptions for the Philadelphia Eagles and Travis Kelce caught 103 passes for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Five tight ends led their teams in receiving in 2018: Ertz, Kelce, Greg Kittle (88 catches with San Francisco), Jared Cook (68, Raiders) and Jordan Reed (54, Washington). Kittle broke Gronkowski’s single-season position record for yardage with 1,377. Kelce also topped Gronkowski with his 1,336 yards. Eric Ebron chipped in an NFL-runnerup 13 touchdown receptions for the Colts. Tight ends loom as coverage mismatches because of a size/speed combination that offenses are now eager to exploit.
Credit Quinn and Patricia for embracing the trend. In the 1990s, there were 61 100-yard receiving games by NFL tight ends. In the 2000s, there were 135. And in the 2010 decade, with one season remaining, there have already been 216 100-yard receiving games by tight ends.
There’s a growing premium on tight ends, who are becoming go-to receivers in NFL offenses. So the chances of finding a Jason Witten in the third round, a Mark Bavaro in the fourth round, a Ben Coates in the fifth and a Shannon Sharpe in the seventh have diminished. Gronkowski himself was a mere second-rounder, Ertz and Kelce third rounders and Kittle a fifth. But tight ends are no longer draft-day after-thoughts.
Which explains why the Lions claimed Hockenson with the eighth pick and the Denver Broncos took his Iowa teammate, Noah Fant, with the 20th overall choice in April. It marked the first time that two tight ends were selected in the Top 20 of a draft in 27 years. Teams can no longer can afford to wait on tight-end greatness on draft day.
Coming from Iowa, Hockenson and Fant have both been schooled as blockers. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is a former NFL offensive line coach, ironically, for Belichick at Cleveland. And both tight ends know their way around the secondary. Hockenson won the Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end last season after averaging almost 16 yards per catch with his 47 receptions. As a sophomore in 2017, Fant led the nation’s tight ends with his 11 touchdown catches and 16.5-yard average.
Quinn and Patricia know what a great tight end looks like. They tried unsuccessfully to trade for Gronkowski in 2018. So they had no reservation spending a Top 10 draft pick on one in 2019.