Advertisement

Hendon Hooker riding the (almost) rookie roller coaster

Going into the Detroit Lions minicamp this week, one of the focal points was the play and progress of second-year quarterback Hendon Hooker. After missing his rookie season with a knee injury suffered in his final college game at Tennessee, Hooker remains largely unknown and unproven in the NFL.

I got a first glimpse of Hooker in action in the OTA session that was open to the media. Working with a lot of first-team reps in a bit of a crash course. He had mixed results overall; some reps were very impressive and demonstrated the promise that made me rate him as a borderline first-round QB prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft. Other reps showed a lack of decisiveness and some oddly wild accuracy.

That’s not an unexpected development for a rookie player working with heretofore unfamiliar receivers and a big gap of time in playing. Hooker hadn’t faced live defense, even in an unpadded practice, in almost 18 months. Rust and nerves are perfectly normal. That OTA practice served as something of a baseline for my experience and expectations for Hooker for the coming months.

Wednesday’s minicamp session was the second exposure. I don’t really know what I was expecting to see, to be honest. Maybe I wanted to see a little progress on the accuracy front. I was definitely hoping to see more of Hooker being instinctive instead of thinking and delaying too much. That’s something Hooker himself mentioned after the OTA practice that he was looking to remedy; he noted how much better he felt he played when “the brain shut off and I just played” instead of thinking about it.

Alas, that didn’t happen on Wednesday, not consistently anyway. Hooker is clearly still learning the tendencies of his receivers. Every receiver runs each route a little uniquely, and there were a couple of times where Hooker’s pass would have been fine for, say, 6-foot-2 and long-armed Daurice Fountain, but wasn’t where smaller, faster Kalif Raymond wanted or expected the ball. Again, that’s perfectly normal and shouldn’t be seen as an inability to throw an accurate pass as much as it is inexperience.

After a generally positive and more commanding start to Wednesday’s session, Hooker guided the Lions offense into a hurry-up drill. Adding in the variable of the pressure of a ticking clock did not go well for Hooker. He infuriated offensive coordinator Ben Johnson by holding the ball too long and also checking down for insignificant yardage gains that weren’t worth the seconds burned to attain them.

The accuracy when he held the ball too long, an issue in the OTAs, got even worse on Wednesday with the pressure of leading the first-team offense under duress. A bounced throw here, a bad overthrow there. The well-oiled machine with Jared Goff at the helm ground to a frustrating halt with Hooker running the show. It wasn’t all bad; Hooker quickly chose to tuck and run on one rep and chewed up yards against an unsuspecting safety group on one rep, and he drilled a deep out on a precise timing route to quickly move the chains on another.

Head coach Dan Campbell remains encouraged by Hooker’s progress. As Campbell noted this week, the Lions are working hard to get him up to speed as the backup quarterback. It’s a deliberate test for Hooker.

“He’s gotten, I don’t know, but I would guess he’s gotten more game situations as a backup quarterback than probably most in a spring,” Campbell said before Thursday’s practice. “We’ve put him in so many hard situations, which has been unbelievable to have those.”

Thursday’s practice was more of the same. There were instinctive, quick, decisive throws that looked fantastic. Accurate balls on smart decisions. There were just as many where Hooker didn’t get the ball out when it needed to be and he was off-target. The hurry-up scenario at the end of Thursday’s session, with Hooker operating the second-team offense, was so bad that the coaches pulled the plug on the drill early instead of trying to convert a fourth-and-long after Hooker missed one throw and took far too long to check down on another.

Even though Hooker isn’t technically a rookie, it’s important to view him as a rookie. It’s much more intellectually honest to view Hooker through that prism. It’s also a little less frustrating too, knowing that he’s going through all this at the professional level for the first time.

I’ve seen rookie QBs of all calibers before. I spent a lot of time around both DeShone Kizer and Baker Mayfield as rookies in Cleveland. I sort of remember the (mercifully brief) Brad Kaaya and Jake Rudock experiences in Detroit. David Blough, too. Learning how to make quicker decisions against faster/smarter/more complicated defenses is something every rookie has to withstand. Hooker is doing that with mixed results right now, which is perfectly acceptable.

It’s the next step, and how quickly he makes it, that is the key. Like a roller coaster, there are peaks and valleys to endure along the way. Some sharp turns and vortexes to navigate along the way are part of the rookie ride, too. Even so, I want to see progress from what we’ve seen from Hooker this spring to the end of the preseason. I expect it.

The Lions clearly want and expect the same, and they do so with a tremendous amount of confidence that Hooker will validate their pre-draft assessment. I share that confidence too, though it’s hard to not get a little anxious in seeing Hooker’s growing pains up close and personal.

 

 

Story originally appeared on Lions Wire