The Lions are still in the thick of a rebuild as they look to climb out of the NFC North cellar, but they’re convinced they’ve got at least one long-term building block already in the lineup. With 2022 training camp around the corner, Detroit is expected to prioritize a contract extension for Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson in the coming months, according to ESPN.
Hockenson, drafted No. 8 overall in 2019, is already tied to the Lions through 2023, after Detroit exercised his $9.4 million fifth-year option this spring. But he’s emerged as one of the team’s most reliable weapons, especially over his last two seasons, and could soon be rewarded as such. His performance since 2020, in fact, could very well make him one of the game’s highest-paid players at his position.
In the event Hockenson and the Lions strike a new deal before — or early in — the 2022 season, the former Iowa standout could reasonably expect to average roughly $13.7+ million per year, making him one of the top five highest-paid tight ends in the NFL.
While Hockenson likely won’t eclipse the average annual earnings of elite names like George Kittle ($15M) and Travis Kelce ($14.3M), who lead the tight end market thanks to multiple 1,000-yard outings, he’s been just as, if not more, productive as a pass catcher than four of the five veterans who earn over $12M per year at the position, as seen in the numbers:
Besides Kelce and Kittle, only the Ravens‘ Mark Andrews, not depicted above, makes more than $12M per year and has far exceeded Hockenson’s average numbers, having logged three straight 700-yard seasons as Baltimore’s top pass target. The Cowboys‘ Dalton Schultz and Dolphins‘ Mike Gesicki have also teased higher statistical ceilings, but they are currently slated to play 2022 under the franchise tag ($10.9M) after failing to strike long-term deals, presumably because they (rightfully) view themselves as capable of their own top-five tight-end contracts.
Njoku’s per-year earnings, stemming from a four-year, $56.75M extension signed this offseason, stand out as the most viable starting point for Hockenson negotiations. Like Hockenson, Njoku is a former first-rounder, with inherently high expectations, and he’s similarly flashed top-10 talent in his best NFL season while battling injuries (Hockenson missed five games in 2021 due to thumb surgery, while Njoku has missed 16 different games over the last three years). The Lions standout is both younger and a more reliable receiver thus far, however, improving his catch percentage in each of his NFL seasons.
It stands to reason, then, that if the Lions are truly committed to securing Hockenson sooner rather than later, he’ll be one of their larger homegrown investments in recent memory.