GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Detroit Lions tight ends Jesse James and Logan Thomas were talking before Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals and they had an inkling of what might happen. They’d studied the tape. They’d been around the league, and everything they had watched throughout the preseason and the spring told them both the same thing.
They thought Lions rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson was going to have a big day.
“All of OTAs, all camp, [Hockenson] came in with his head down and just practiced and practiced and it was at that point we all, both of us knew,” Thomas said. “The rest of the team was put on notice that he was going to have a chance to be really, really good in this league.”
On Sunday, the rest of the NFL saw exactly what the two Lions tight ends had been describing all along. In front of a crowd that included approximately 100 family members and friends who made the trip to Arizona from his hometown of Chariton, Iowa, Hockenson did something better than any rookie tight end to come before him.
In his first game, Detroit's first-round pick caught six passes for 131 yards and a touchdown -- the most receiving yards since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger for a rookie tight end in his debut. This all bodes well for Detroit in its future with the soft-spoken Hockenson, who deflected all excitement about his individual performance because it came in a 27-27 tie that saw the Lions blow an 18-point fourth-quarter lead.
“He’s a beast,” receiver Danny Amendola said. “He’s been working really hard. He got a taste of what the NFL is all about today and he’s a great player, great teammate and I’m excited to see what he does.”
It’s clear that if the Lions' offense is going to be successful in 2019, it will be with Hockenson playing a large role. He led Detroit in yards Sunday and -- surprisingly considering the Lions have two of the better deep-ball receivers in the league in Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay -- yards per reception (21.8). Hockenson is the kind of matchup problem the Lions were hoping for when they took him as the eighth overall pick this spring.
Few teams will have a player who can be a good matchup against his 6-foot-5, 247-pound frame. You just likely won’t hear about it from Hockenson, who appeared bothered and confused by the outcome of the game; he said he had never been part of a tie before.
There were also obvious areas he can grow and things that will come in time. A couple of plays, including a deep pass in the fourth quarter where it appeared Hockenson was sitting on the route and Matthew Stafford threw it deep, were miscommunications that will get worked on over time as the tight end and quarterback develop a rapport.
“We’re just trying to throw it up and see if we can make a play,” Hockenson said. “He’s scrambling back there and it’s something we need to get on the same page, and that’s what we need to do.”
Despite his big day, Hockenson was more down and critical than anything else. He said he was happy to have played, unhappy with the result.
But he did, at least, pull one veteran move even as a rookie. His first touchdown catch? He kept the ball.