When the Lions drafted tight end T.J. Hockenson No. 8 overall in the 2019 draft, they knew there would be some growing pains as a rookie. Playing tight end in the NFL is tough business for first-year players, and while Hockenson showed flashes as a rookie, he needed to get more comfortable playing in the NFL.
Now in his second season, his production has seen a significant uptick. Hockenson currently leads all NFC tight ends in receptions (52), yards (614), yards after the catch (288), first downs (33), 10-plus-yard completions (28), and he's second in touchdowns (5) and third in 25-plus-yard receptions (4). As a result, Hockenson leads the Pro Bowl voting at tight end in the NFC.
"I think he's doing a really nice job for us," Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said Wednesday of Hockenson. "He can kind of do it all. He can block, he can run, catch and do all that sort of stuff for us. So, his role just keeps expanding. His route tree does the same just keeps expanding in the things that he can do. Hock's obviously a young player, but a talented player, and he's doing a nice job."
Lions interim head coach Darrell Bevell was asked Wednesday what he's seen as the biggest development from year one to year two with Hockenson.
"I think that's the most important part about this thing, is he's willing to learn the X's and O's, he's really willing to put the time in, out on the field he's getting extra stuff with Matthew (Stafford) and the quarterbacks at times," Bevell said.
"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. There is stuff you get a comfort level – remember, at the beginning of the year he's coming off that injury; we're limiting him a little bit. So he has that comfort level with Matthew, I think they have that good relationship where they know what each other is getting ready to do. I think that helps as well. Right now, he's playing really well for us."
Hockenson will look to keep his impressive season going this week against a Green Bay defense that hasn't allowed a 100-yard performance by any opposing tight end this season and has only allowed three touchdowns to the position all year.
SWIFT BACK AT PRACTICE
D’Andre Swift has missed Detroit's last three games due to a concussion and then an illness not related to that concussion or COVID-19.
But Detroit's versatile rookie running back was back on the practice field Wednesday. That's a good first step for Swift to make his return to the lineup Sunday.
"He's continued to improve each and every day, so we're excited to see him out there at practice today," Bevell said Wednesday. "And like I told you, we're trying to monitor how that goes and then see the next day. But so far, so good."
The task for Detroit's defense is a daunting one this week. Green Bay has the No. 1 scoring offense, No. 2 overall offense and an MVP candidate at quarterback with Aaron Rodgers, who is fresh off a three-touchdown performance last week that earned him NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
The Lions' defense heads into this matchup with some confidence after how they played the second half last week in Chicago in helping Detroit secure a win with some keys plays down the stretch.
Lions defensive coordinator Cory Undlin said this week that he expects his guys to come in Wednesday with a little extra juice knowing the task at hand.
"There better be (some extra juice in the room this week)," Undlin said. "You guys know what I'm going to say. This will be a good test for us here. I would expect nothing less than a bunch of juice coming out of this room, regardless of Sunday.
"Obviously ... the way we ended up finishing out the (Chicago) game and playing at the end, is going to help that. We're going to keep going forward here. Got our hands full. I don't need to go and take you through that – you guys know."
Bevell said the team hopes to get defensive end Trey Flowers back before the end of the season. Flowers has been on injured reserve with an arm injury since the Colts game, but has been doing some work on the side with the training staff during practice recently.
"Obviously, it would be a huge boost for us to be able to get a player of his caliber back," Bevell said. "He's progressing that way, I think that's his mindset, which is probably the most important thing, and we're looking forward to that day."