A nice Tuesday afternoon rewatching the Lions’ Week 8 loss to the Dolphins got interrupted by a huge trade. The Lions have dealt away Pro Bowl TE T.J. Hockenson to the Minnesota Vikings for two Day 2 picks in upcoming drafts.
First, the deal itself:
The Lions traded Hockenson, a 2023 fourth-round pick and a conditional 2024 fourth-rounder to the Vikings in exchange for a 2023 second-round pick and a 2024 third-round pick in return.
It’s not yet known the exact conditions, but it’s fair to assume that they involve Hockenson’s production for Detroit’s end and Minnesota’s ability to re-sign Hockenson when (or before) his contract expires following the 2023 season on that side of the ledger.
This deal came in a hurry, as trades often do. It was reliably reported on Friday that the Lions had not had any calls about Hockenson. Obviously, that changed over the weekend. We’ll deal with the Vikings side later, but here’s what I’m taking away for the Lions.
Trading within the division isn’t nearly the taboo that it used to be. In fact, this is the second major trade between these two teams this year, the draft weekend trade that netted the Lions WR Jameson Williams for picks being the first. I don’t really like trading within the division and especially not when the player helps the division rival in the manner that it appears Hockenson will, but that’s just a new way of doing business that I — and most fans — are just going to have to get used to.
The trade removes Hockenson from the Lions depth chart. I have mixed feelings here.
Hockenson is a very talented tight end, certainly the best on the Lions roster. Brock Wright ascends to the starting role, with fifth-round rookie James Mitchell climbing up a spot. Veteran Garrett Griffin is currently on the practice squad, as is Shane Zylstra, who played for the team the last two seasons.
None of them can replace Hockenson’s top-end production. Games like Hockenson’s record-setting Week 4 performance against Seattle (8 catches, 179 yards, 2 TDs) are just not possible with what the Lions have left at the position.
However, games even close to that for Hockenson himself were few and far between. That was the first game he topped 100 receiving yards since his NFL debut back in Week 1 of 2018. For his Lions career, Hockenson averaged four receptions for 44 yards per game. Hockenson didn’t even post that in five of the seven games this season.
In other words, the numbers he was posting were not commensurate with the talent or potential No. 88 possesses. Hockenson proved he could do more, but it didn’t happen very often. That’s not all Hockenson’s fault, either.
The Lions offense simply isn’t designed around having an elite pass-catching tight end. Most weeks, Hockenson was fourth or fifth on the team in targets. That was the case in Sunday’s loss to the Dolphins, where he caught three of the four passes thrown his way and gained 80 yards. Which leads to the contractual issue…
Hockenson was locked in for $9.4 million in 2023 on the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. That’s about $1 million below the franchise tag value for tight ends in 2021. There were already rumblings Hockenson, more specifically his representation, was looking to strike a rich new deal this coming offseason that would wipe out the fifth-year option. Something along the lines of what David Njoku, someone with similar receiving production but a much more consistent blocker than Hockenson, got from the Browns: four years, $54.75 million.
The Lions were (rightly) not going to pay that to keep Hockenson, not given his spot in the receiving pecking order or the litany of recurring wounds that keeps him on the injury list almost every week in one form or another. Dealing him away now preemptively ends any contractual negotiation drama. I like that. Making the Vikings wrestle with paying a good-not-great player like Hockenson top-end money? I like that too.
Over the weekend I guessed on Twitter that Hockenson would bring back a second-rounder and a fourth-rounder in any hypothetical trade.
As far as the actual picks go, the 2024 conditional picks are basically a wash. Right now, the 2023 picks would be No. 62 overall to Detroit and No. 101 overall back to Minnesota, subject to change based on how the two teams finish the season.
Personally, I don’t think that’s quite enough for a starting TE with high-end receiving potential. I wouldn’t have given back the 2023 fourth-rounder and would have held pretty firm on that. Then again, that could also demonstrate how willing Lions GM Brad Holmes was to move on from Hockenson.
If I had to grade the deal on gut reaction, it’s a C-plus. The Lions are headed nowhere in 2022 and it was evident they could move forward without Hockenson and not lose much from the offensive attack. Hockenson is a good player and I liked him personally. He played with passion and commitment, even if the results didn’t always reflect it.
But I was vocal in arguing against the Lions giving him a contract extension. Even keeping Hockenson beyond 2023 at the same $9.4 million was too much for what the position demands in Detroit. Transferring that issue to Minnesota is a nice plus. It almost makes me happy the Lions did trade Hockenson within the division; nothing sinks contenders quite like bad contracts.
I wish Hockenson well in Minnesota, and I strongly suspect his now-former Lions teammates and coaches do, too.