Second-year Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson is good friends with former Iowa teammate and 49ers tight end George Kittle. The two worked out with each other this offseason.
There was obviously a lot Hockenson took away from those workouts with Kittle from a technical and football perspective – Kittle is one of the best in the business right now – but maybe the biggest takeaway Hockenson had was just to start having more fun again playing the game of football.
"George is one of the best dudes you'll ever be around," Hockenson said of Kittle. "His persona about him, everything is fun. That was my biggest takeaway in the offseason hanging out with him is just have fun with it.
"We're playing a child's game and you sometimes take it for granted and you take it too serious. But you have to go out there and have fun and compete. I think that was the biggest thing I took away from him."
Hockenson had an up and down rookie season after the Lions selected him with No. 8 overall pick in last year's NFL Draft. He exploded onto the scene in his debut Week 1 in Arizona, catching six passes for 131 yards and a touchdown. He wouldn't come close to those numbers again in any single contest, and ended the year on IR with an ankle injury after 12 games.
Hockenson spent some time earlier this month on the Inactive/COVID-19 list after testing positive for the virus, though he said he never developed any symptoms.
He took the time rehabbing from his ankle injury this offseason to add muscle and strength to his upper body, and said the offseason was good for him both physically and mentally. He still notices the ankle injury from time to time, but is able to practice and compete, and is closing in on 100 percent health.
"Sometimes guys after an injury come back and baby that," Hockenson said. "That's not something I want to do. That's something I don't even want to pay attention to. That's what I'm getting towards and that's kind of where I'm at, at this point."
Kittle became the highest paid tight end in the NFL this offseason after signing a $75 million extension with San Francisco. Hockenson said Kittle works his tail off and deserved the contract. After Hockenson texted him congratulating him on the new contract, Kittle responded simply with a money bag emoji.
"It was kind of funny," Hockenson said. "He's just a good guy. He really deserved that. It paved the way for all of us younger tight ends."
As a rookie three seasons ago, Kittle caught 43 passes for 515 yards and two touchdowns in 15 games (seven starts) after he was selected in the fifth round by the 49ers. He exploded in year two, however, with 88 receptions for 1,377 yards and five scores. He followed that up last season with 85 catches for 1,053 yards and another five touchdowns. He's turned into one of the most productive tight ends in the game, and seems to have a lot of fun doing it.
The Lions are hoping to see a similar leap in production from Hockenson in his second season. He finished with 32 receptions for 367 yards and a couple scores last season, which aren't too far off Kittle's rookie numbers, considering he played in two less games.
Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said this offseason he plans to do a better job getting Hockenson and the rest of the tight ends more involved in the offense.
For his part, Hockenson plans to take to heart the lesson he learned this offseason from Kittle about having more fun playing the game. He thinks it will be good for him.
"Obviously, you come into a year and want to be better than the year before," Hockenson said after Monday's first padded practice. "I think that's something I've looked at, things that I've written down and I'm pushing forward."