Wednesday, May 29, 2019

How T.J. Hockenson is making a great first impression with Detroit Lions

Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press Published 12:50 p.m. ET May 29, 2019 | Updated 2:06 p.m. ET May 29, 2019

Chris White was in his final season as running backs coach at Iowa when the Hawkeyes landed an under-the-radar tight end recruit by the name of T.J. Hockenson.
White wasn’t coaching Hockenson at the time, but the Detroit Lions’ current tight ends coach remembers Hockenson making quite the first impression.
About a week into Hockenson’s first training camp, Hawkeyes coaches gathered for a staff meeting to discuss their roster. When Hockenson’s name came up, then-Iowa tight ends coach LeVar Woods dropped a whopper on the room.
“He goes, ‘This kid’s going to be better than George Kittle,’ ” White said. “And everyone went, like, ‘What?’ It’s like, ‘OK. That’s a lofty thing to say.’ ”

T.J. Hockenson. (Photo: Matthew Holst, Getty Images)
Hockenson ended up redshirting that first season to add weight and learn the playbook, but Woods, who played seven seasons in the NFL, including two with the Lions, saw enough in that first week of practice to know the Lions’ newest first-round pick had the potential to be special.
White said Hockenson had a presence about him that was uncommon for a freshman, and a toughness that coaches loved.
“He didn’t back down to anyone,” White said. “We had some guys on that defense like Josey Jewell, who’s playing for the Broncos. He’s tough. He wouldn’t back down from those guys. He just, he had an aura about him kind of like not typical of a freshman.”

T.J. Hockenson NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being chosen 8th overall by the Detroit Lions on April 25 in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo: Andy Lyons, Getty Images)
It has been a little over a month since the Lions made Hockenson the No. 8 pick of the NFL draft, and the rookie is opening eyes with his new team like he did early in his Iowa days.
He caught two touchdown passes at the Lions’ first open organized team activity workout of the spring last week and has earned praise from coaches and teammates alike.
“He’s doing a good job moving around out there,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said last week. “I think he’d probably be the first guy to tell you he feels like a rookie. Rookies, there’s a lot of action going on out there. They’ve got a new system to learn, new city to learn, new coaches, players, all that. There’s a lot going on. (But) at some point in the year we’re going to need all those guys and I know they know that.”
The Lions, despite making a major investment in their tight end room this offseason that included signing Jesse James and Logan Thomas in free agency and taking Hockenson and Isaac Nauta in the draft, need more from Hockenson than most.
They made him the rare top-10 pick at the tight end position because they believe he can impact games in a multitude of ways.
At Iowa, Hockenson had 73 catches and nine touchdowns in two seasons. He was the team’s top red-zone threat, a difference-maker as a run blocker, and someone whose versatility allowed the Hawkeyes to create mismatches with their personnel groupings.
The Lions have plans to use Hockenson in similar ways.
“He’s learning, and the thing about him, he’s smart,” White said. “He’s really smart and he’s got a work ethic. We’re trying to obviously have him do one spot right now, but I think by the end of training camp I wouldn’t be surprised if we could move around a lot in different spots.”
While tight end is typically a tough position to contribute at as a rookie, Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said Hockenson could be a mold-breaker because of his work ethic and intelligence.
“From what I’ve seen on tape from his college days, I think T.J.’s going to be able to pick it up,” Bevell said. “He’s done a nice job of really applying himself in the classroom so far, picking things up out there on the field, and he’s got the skill set to do a lot of different things. But we need to develop it and bring it out so that he has a chance to be successful, not overload him.”
White said neither he nor Bevell knew the Lions were going to take Hockenson in Round 1 on draft day April 25, and when the pick was made they celebrated with raised fists and "we-got-our-guy" relief.
“I can’t tell you how fired up I was,” White said. “And it was more because I know the kid and what type of kid he is. He’s got a high ceiling.”
One White has been aware of for years.
Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Read more on the Detroit Lions and sign up for our Lions newsletter.

ESPN: Lions' signing of Trey Flowers one of biggest upgrades of NFL offseason

The Detroit News Published 2:25 p.m. ET May 28, 2019 | Updated 2:26 p.m. ET May 28, 2019

The Lions brought in defensive end Trey Flowers, right, to essentially replace former first-round pick
Ziggy Ansah. (Photo: Steven Senne, Associated Press)

The Detroit Lions selected Ziggy Ansah with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and, at times, the defensive end lived up to the billing.
There were other times, however, be it injuries or inconsistencies, where Ansah did not.
Playing on a franchise tag, Ansah was limited to just four sacks in seven games (two starts) because of injuries. The Lions let him walk this offseason, replacing him with free-agent edge rusher Trey Flowers.
That move ranks No. 7 among ESPN's biggest position upgrades during the NFL offseasonwhich was posted Tuesday.
Ansah recorded 14.5- and 12-sack seasons, but managed just six combined in 2016 and 2018, the final season hampered by a shoulder injury.
"Ansah has registered 48 sacks in 80 career games and has at times been one of the league's top pass-rushers," Mike Clay of ESPN writes. "But health has eluded the 2013 fifth-overall pick in recent seasons, and the team reached its breaking point after he was limited to 137 snaps in seven games last season.
"With Ansah out, Detroit spent big on Flowers, to the tune of $90 million over five years. Flowers has been limited to 21 sacks in 46 career games, but ranked 10th among edge rushers with 64 QB pressures last season. This would be hard to qualify as a serious upgrade if Ansah were healthy, but availability has been a big problem, so here we are."
A fourth-round draft pick out of Arkansas in 2015, Flowers, 25, spent his first four seasons with the New England Patriots. He played the first three under current Lions coach Matt Patricia, who previously served as New England's defensive coordinator. 
Flowers had 7.5 sacks last season. Ansah signed with the Seattle Seahawks.
The Oakland Raiders' trade for former Central Michigan star receiver Antonio Brown to essentially replace Jordy Nelson topped ESPN's list, followed by former Michigan State star running back Le'Veon Bell signing with the New York Jets, replacing Isaiah Crowell.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

PFF lists linebacker Ben Niemann among “promising undrafted free agents”

The football analytics website reminded fans about some promising 2018 UDFAs this week.

By Pete Sweeney

Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Pro Football Focus recently posted an article on “The promising undrafted free agents of 2018 that shouldn’t be overlooked,” and Kansas City Chiefs second-year linebacker Ben Niemann appeared on its list.

Linebacker Ben Niemann forced his way into the Chiefs’ lineup last season after going undrafted out of Iowa. He generated a 59.3 overall grade on only 71 defensive snaps, but he was a major contributor on special teams, where he played 307 snaps and earned an 86.2 special teams grade.
The second-year pro has always been a sure tackler. In his final season with the Hawkeyes, he missed only four tackles on 76 attempts to go along with his 76.3 overall grade. He will continue to play a significant role on special teams while he tries to break his way into an underwhelming linebacking corps.
Niemann made the Chiefs roster last year at the 53-man deadline after a great showing in the preseason, beating out the likes of veteran Frank Zombo and Ukeme Eligwe.
“You just couldn’t ignore the tape—I mean, that was it,” Chiefs GM Brett Veach said of the 23-year-old Niemann at the time. “Actually, we had two teams that called us about Ben Niemann, and we knew that he wasn’t going to get through the waiver-wire claim, and we knew that he was not going to make it to the practice squad.”
With the Chiefs releasing Zombo, they had to have been comfortable with Niemann’s special teams ability, and it showed. Only five Chiefs tallied more snaps on specials teams than Niemann, a four-phase teams player, in 2018.
Much of his limited playing time on defense came Week 10 against the Arizona Cardinals, his only start (29 snaps) of the season with fellow Iowa product Anthony Hitchens out with a rib injury. Niemann had six tackles (five solo) in the game.
Last year, the Chiefs kept six defensive lineman and nine linebackers at the 53-man roster deadline. Those totals should be flipped this season with the Chiefs’ switch to the 4-3 defense, which will make it tougher for Niemann to make the club. Niemann gained experience in the 4-3 in college, playing both outside linebacker positions, as well as middle linebacker when called upon.
Right now, Hitchens, Damien Wilson, Darron Lee and Dorian O’Daniel are probably safe bets to make the team. Based upon his special teams play, tackling ability and experience at multiple linebacker positions, Niemann “shouldn’t be overlooked,” as PFF says, when it comes to those final two presumed linebacker spots on the Chiefs.

T.J. Hockenson should be the best tight end that Matthew Stafford has ever played with


During his first season in the Motor City, Detroit Lions’ head coach Matt Patricia brought a philosophy that quarterback Matthew Stafford hadn’t seen before — a focus on the run game. As a result, Stafford failed to reach the 4,000-yard passing plateau for the first time in a season in which he played 16 games.
Even with Patricia’s emphasis on the run game, the NFL is still a passing league, and that means teams need as many receiving threats on the field as possible at any given time. One way to affect both phases of the game is by having a tight end who is a mauler as a run-blocker and an imposing threat as a pass-catcher. Enter the eighth overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft: Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson, who is one of the best all-around tight ends to enter the NFL in some time.
Adding Hockenson isn’t the first time the Lions have tried giving Stafford a reliable weapon at the position early in the draft. Rewind 10 years to 2009 when Stafford entered the league as the first overall pick before being followed by tight end Brandon Pettigrew 19 picks later. Pettigrew, along with wide receiver Calvin Johnson, quickly became the young quarterback’s favorite targets.
The Lions led the league from 2009-13 in targeting the tight end position with 780 targets, and Pettigrew’s 433 targets led the team during that span. During that time though, Pettigrew failed to eclipse a 70.0 overall grade, in large part due to his drop rate of 12.0%.
Prior to the 2014 NFL Draft process, Eric Ebron — a 6-foot-4, 250-pound tight end with a 4.6s 40-yard dash time — burst onto the scene. In hoping to give Stafford another explosive, athletic receiving option at the position, the Lions fell in love with Ebron and selected him with the 10th overall pick of the draft. But it was the recurring theme of heavy targets to little production: Ebron was targeted 277 times in Detroit before his departure in 2018, and like Pettigrew, Ebron failed to reach the 70.0 overall grade threshold.

While Stafford’s tight ends have accounted for a drop rate of 7.7% since 2009 — the fifth-worst rate in the NFL — the quarterback hasn’t particularly helped his tight ends throughout his career. Since entering the league, Stafford’s grade when targeting the position is just 79.1 — 28th among qualifying quarterbacks in that span.
However, one area that Stafford has excelled in during his time in the NFL is targeting his tight ends is in the red zone. Since 2009, he’s earned an 81.1 passing grade when targeting his tight ends inside his opponent’s 20-yard line, placing him ninth among qualifying signal-callers in that time. Even with a 6-foot-5 wide receiver that could jump out of the stadium in Calvin Johnson, Stafford’s red-zone passing grade jumped nearly 20.0 points between wide receivers (63.8) and tight ends (81.1).
All of the focus on tight ends in Stafford’s early career was in part due to running multi-tight end sets. The Lions had two or more tight ends on the field 37% of the time from 2009-13, which was even more than the Darrell Bevell-led Seattle Seahawks (35.8%). But from 2013-18, the Lions rarely used multi-tight end sets, as those packages plummeted to just 17.5% of their plays.

Bevell is now residing in the Motor City as the Lions’ offensive coordinator, which means Stafford and company can expect some more use out of the tight ends in 2019. And the team seems to fully expect that after a complete overhaul at the position, adding two through free agency and two more via the draft.
Stepping up his game significantly, Hockenson is one of just three tight ends since 2014 to earn a 90.0-plus overall grade, a 90.0-plus receiving grade, an 80.0-plus drop grade and a 70.0-plus run-blocking grade in their final college season. Coach Patricia is certainly trying to replicate the New England Patriots mold and Lions’ fans are hoping that Hockenson can be the Rob Gronkowski-esque playmaker for the offense. Hockenson should, at the very least, be the most dependable tight end Stafford has played with in his career, as the former Hawkeye dropped only two of his 75 catchable passes that came throughout his college career.
The Lions will be hoping that the third time is the charm for finding Stafford a tight end that can open the middle of the field and allow Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. to continue making plays outside. Hockenson’s ability to affect the game in multiple ways is something that Pettigrew and Ebron failed to do during their tenures in Detroit, and it should help not only Stafford but the Lions’ offense in its entirety. A second straight successful draft by Patricia and company could help the Lions rise from the cellar of the NFC North and build a winning franchise straight from the New England mold.

Brandon Scherff was NFL's top guard in one critical advanced metric

By: Chris Roling | May 27, 2019

Plenty of intrigue, if not mystery, surroundings the Washington Redskins and Brandon Scherff this offseason when it comes to his contract.
Not mysterious? Scherff’s elite play.
Scherff was one of the NFL’s best again last year. But as Mike Johnson of Pro Football Focus pointed out, Scherff topped the NFL among guards in pure passing sets:

“Pure passing sets,” meaning the elimination of quick plays like screens that take less than 2.5 seconds to better evaluate how a lineman holds up for an extended amount of time.
Call this evaluation of Scherff yet another mark on the resume that ranks him among the elite. And combating interior pressure from the Aaron Donalds of the world is more than ever, so rest assured the Redskins would take into account factors like this at the negotiation table while thinking about the future of the Dwayne Haskins era.

Top 11 all-time NFL players from service academies

Published: May 23, 2019 at 06:11 p.m.

Chase Goodbread

In honor of Memorial Day, looks back at 11 of the best NFL players to come from the service academy (Army, Navy and Air Force) football programs.

5) Mike Wahle, OG, Navy
Pro teams: Green Bay Packers (1998-2004), Carolina Panthers (2005-07) and Seattle Seahawks (2008).

Wahle was a three-sport athlete in high school and arrived at the Naval Academy as a wide receiver. Several years later, he had grown into a standout offensive lineman, but he was asked to resign his commission before his senior season at Navy. The Green Bay Packers selected him in the supplemental draft with a second-round selection, and he went on to a 10-year NFL career. He started 138 games and earned a Pro Bowl nod with the Carolina Panthers in 2005.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Stephen Neal: Nobody Has Worked Harder

Mike Reiss ESPN Staff Writer

12:45 PM ET | May 21, 2019

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots have signed star receiver Julian Edelman to a two-year contract extension that includes an $8 million signing bonus and $12 million in guaranteed money, a source told ESPN on Tuesday.

The extension through the 2021 season includes $19 million in "new" money, and gives the 32-year-old Edelman, the MVP of Super Bowl LIII, a chance to finish his career where it started.

The extension was first reported Tuesday by NFL Network.

Edelman was scheduled to earn a base salary of $2 million in 2019. He also had a chance to earn a $500,000 workout bonus, $375,000 in roster bonuses and other incentives for this season.

After missing the first four games of the 2018 regular season because of a suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, Edelman totaled 100 receptions for 1,238 yards and six touchdowns in 15 games (12 regular-season, three playoff).

Edelman, 32, has three Super Bowl rings with the Patriots, and had 10 catches for 141 yards in this year's victory over the Los Angeles Rams.

He has 115 postseason receptions, which trails only Hall of Famer Jerry Rice (151). He also has six 100-yard receiving games in the postseason, which is tied for second in NFL history with Michael Irvin behind Rice (8).

After the Super Bowl, coach Bill Belichick noted how Edelman played quarterback at Kent State and made the transition to receiver with the Patriots after he was selected in the seventh round of the 2009 draft, a move that earned his respect.

Belichick said other than collegiate wrestler turned NFL offensive lineman Stephen Neal, "Nobody has worked harder than Julian in my career to develop his skills and his craft at another position."

In an offseason when the Patriots have undergone significant personnel turnover -- including the retirement of tight end Rob Gronkowski -- Edelman returns as quarterback Tom Brady's No. 1 pass-catching option. Outside of Edelman and first-round draft choice N'Keal Harry, the Patriots have a wide-open competition for roster spots at wide receiver.

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