Fri, 25 Sep 2020

2020 training camp preview: Tight end

Detroit Lions
03 Aug 2020, 20:25 GMT+10

On the roster: T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James, Isaac Nauta, Hunter Bryant, Matt Sokol

Key losses: Logan Thomas

*college stats

Note: Hockenson and Nauta are currently on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. The process for players to return from the list varies from player to player.

Best competition: Who wins the third roster spot?

Last season, the Lions kept three tight ends on the 53-man roster heading into their Week 1 matchup with Arizona. Assuming the roster looks similar at the position in 2020, Nauta, Bryant and Sokol are expected to compete in camp for that third spot behind Hockenson and James.

Nauta, who started last season on the practice squad after being a seventh-round pick by the team, ended up playing in six games late last year. He caught two passes for 13 yards. Like all second-year players, his game is expected to take a jump heading into year two.

Sokol spent time on the Chargers' and Jaguars' practice squads last season, but he has yet to play in a game. The former Michigan State product will look to make his mark in Detroit during camp.

Bryant was a player most analysts thought would get drafted and were a bit surprised when he wasn't. He signed with the Lions following the draft after posting 825 receiving yards and three scores in 12 games as a senior at Washington last year.

Pro Football Focus considered Bryant the best run-after-the-catch tight end in this year's class. He was a consistent big-play threat in Washington's offense last season. The Lions have kept an undrafted rookie free agent on the initial 53-man roster every season Bob Quinn has been the general manager.

Twentyman's take: Hockenson burst onto the scene last year with 131 receiving yards and a touchdown in his debut in Arizona, but we never saw that kind out output from him again in a single contest. His 32 receptions last year were fifth most on a team that featured three receivers catching at least 60 passes for 675 yards.

Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said this offseason he plans to get the tight ends, especially Hockenson, more involved in the offense this season. That makes sense, because we've seen young tight ends make a big leap in production in their second season.

Consider this: Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, Zach Ertz, George Kittle and Austin Hooper were the top five tight ends last year in terms of catches. Looking back at those players, and comparing their first and second seasons is rather interesting and relevant as it pertains to Hockenson. Kelce didn't catch a single pass as a rookie before being placed on IR with a knee injury in October of his first season. He caught 67 passes in his second season. Ertz caught 36 passes as a rookie and 58 the next year. Kittle had 43 receptions as a rookie in 2017 and earned a Pro Bowl nod in his second season with 88 catches for 1,377 yards. Hooper caught 19 passes as a rookie and 49 in his second season. There are a lot of examples of tight ends really flourishing in their second seasons.

James was a bit of a disappointment last year after signing as a free agent. The Lions were probably expecting a little more than just 16 receptions and no touchdowns from him. Bevell has also talked about getting James more involved in the offense.

The Lions have a lot of talented skill position players, and there's only one football to distribute around, but I'd expect Hockenson and the tight end position to be more involved this season as the Lions look to be more balanced on offense.

By the numbers:

7: Receptions of 20-plus yards for Bryant last season, which according to PFF, was the most among power-five conference tight ends in 2019.

11: The Lions tied for 11th in the NFL last season with 67 plays from scrimmage resulting in 20-or-more yards.

103.9: Matthew Stafford's passer rating throwing out of two tight end sets in 2019.

131: Hockenson set an NFL record for most receiving yards by a tight end in his debut, passing 49ers tight end Monty Stickles' previous record of 123 yards in his debut in 1960.

367: The total receiving yards for Hockenson in 12 games as a rookie was third most among rookie tight ends last season behind Noah Fant (563) and Dawson Knox (388).

Quotable: "As far as both those guys go (Hockenson and James), I just had a conversation with Jesse and it's my job to help those guys get more involved," Bevell said. "The good part about the job is I have all these weapons and that's also the bad part about the job. I mean, there's only one ball.

"I talked to Jesse about getting Jesse more involved, but all those guys need to have opportunities to touch the ball, whether they're the skill guys on the outside or whether it's the easiest way handing it to those running backs ... it's something I've talked to those (tight ends) about getting them more involved where they're showing up and having games like that."

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