Now that he's a 'professional,' T.J. Hockenson is becoming a star

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No one was all that pleased with T.J. Hockenson's rookie season, especially Hockenson himself. He exploded in his NFL debut, fizzled out over the next several weeks and then went down in December with an ankle injury.

The eighth overall picked finished outside the league's top 25 tight ends in receptions, yards and touchdowns.

A year later, Hockenson is third in receptions, third in yards and tied for fifth in touchdowns. In other words, exactly the sort of second-year jumping the Lions were hoping for.

The biggest difference? Hockenson's daily approach, according to Lions tight ends coach Ben Johnson. His 'professionalism.' It started with a conversation back in the spring.

"We kind of laid out a plan: 'Hey, this is what a professional looks like. This is what a meeting looks like, this is what a walk-through looks like, this is what practice should look like,'" Johnson said Wednesday. "I think he took that with open arms and he’s attacked this entire season with that in mind. With, 'Hey, I want to be a professional during the week and then game day will take care of itself through the preparation I put in and the deposits I put in the bank.'

"To me, that’s where the biggest growth has happened. It hasn’t even been on the field necessarily. It’s been more off the field and mindset-wise."

It didn't click for Hockenson right away. His numbers through the first five games this season were almost identical to those from his rookie season. Back in October, we were still wondering whether a second-year jump was in store. That's when Darrell Bevell challenged Hockenson to start creating more separation downfield.

Hockenson has had a touchdown or at least 65 yards receiving in six of the seven games since. He's gone for 241 yards over his last three. The biggest difference this time?

Darrell Bevell, obviously.

"I don’t know how you want me to answer. You want me to say the great scheme that we’re doing for him?" Bevell cracked on Wednesday.

In reality, Hockenson has taken more ownership of his routes. Johnson likened it to an artist painting outside the lines. The playbook is merely the template. The field is where Hockenson has freedom of expression.

"I think he’s really taken that approach, particularly the last few weeks in terms of saying, 'Hey, I can make the release look however I want (in order) to get this defender off-balance and be able to get separation at the top of the route,'" Johnson said. "I know Bev challenged him a few weeks ago. He took that to heart and he really came out the next week guns-a-blazing -- and that fire hasn’t died down at all."

Has Hockenson established himself as one of the best tight ends in the game?That can be debated. Travis Kelce remains the gold standard, along with George Kittle when healthy. But Hockenson is on the right track. Here are Kelce's numbers in his second NFL season: 67 catches, 862 yards, five touchdowns.

And here's what Hockenson's on pace for in his: 70 catches, 818 yards, six touchdowns. His emergence has been doubly important for Matthew Stafford and the Lions with Kenny Golladay sidelined for the past five games.

"He's doing a really nice job for us," Stafford said Wednesday. "He can kind of do it all, can block, can run, can catch. So his role just keeps expanding, his route tree does the same. Just expanding the things that he can do. Hock’s a pretty dynamic guy when he’s running routes and creating separation."

This is what the Lions envisioned when they drafted Hockenson so high, when they ignored their own history and took another tight end in the top 10. It's still too early to say whether Bob Quinn was right. He spurned the kind of defensive talent this roster so desperately to go shopping in the luxury aisle on offense. Hockenson needs to become a flat-out star to justify that decision.

Which means it's also too early to say Quinn was wrong. Hockenson's star is rising, one game, one day, one rep at a time.

"He’s willing to put the work in," said Bevell. "I think that’s the most important part about this thing, he’s willing to learn the X’s and O’s, he’s willing to put the time in, out on the field he’s getting extra stuff in with Matthew. It’s the behind-the-scenes things that you don’t get to see that he’s doing every day. He works hard at his craft."