Life as a rookie in the NFL can be tough. For Detroit Lions tight end Isaac Nauta, it may be particularly difficult. As a seventh-round pick, the odds are already stacked against him, and after the Lions went all-in on the tight end position this offseason—including spending the eighth overall pick on T.J. Hockenson—the path to a role on offense, or even a roster spot, won’t be particularly easy.
And looking at the Lions tight end room, there isn’t exactly a player that serves as a natural mentor. Everyone but Logan Thomas—someone who has played tight end for just three years—is 25 years or younger.
But mentors can come from many sources, and this week during joint practices with the New England Patriots, Nauta spent some time talking to one of his after Tuesday’s practice.
Benjamin Watson has spent 15 years in the NFL. He’s had to deal with heavy rookie expectations as a first rounder, he’s felt the stresses of free agency, he’s even won a Super Bowl. And at 38 years old, he is the oldest active tight end in the NFL. As far as mentors, no one may be more experienced than Watson.
And luckily for Nauta, they have a shared history at the University of Georgia. The two have met several times when Watson came back to Georgia for spring practices and bowl games, including January’s Sugar Bowl. Since then, they’ve been in constant contact texting and calling each other to bounce advice off each other.
“He’s been in the league for so long and he’s been so successful,” Nauta said. “So he’s a guy that I’ve consistently reached out to for anything.”
For Watson, it almost feels like his duty to take care of his fellow Dawgs.
“It’s just kind of like a fraternity of sorts,” Watson said. “Whenever you meet a guy from Georgia or you know a guy that plays your position, obviously, you try to get in touch with them and we text from time to time.”
As far as topics of conversations go, it’s less about the football technique and strategy, and more about the day-to-day advice on expectations for the NFL and keeping your confidence up in a high-pressure environment.
“A lot of times, as a young player, you just need encouragement,” Watson said. “‘You have what it takes, you can do this. Just keep on fighting.’ We’ve all been in that situation, and we’ve all been young. We’ve all pushed through the ups and downs of those trials.”
For Nauta, the early returns already seem promising. He’s made a handful of plays throughout training camp, including an outstanding grab at the Ford Field scrimmage last week. And after the Lions cut former fourth-round pick Michael Roberts, suddenly his path to the 53-man roster looks a lot more clear.
And according to Watson, Nauta has the tools to not only make the team, but potentially last a long time in this league.
“He’s strong at the point, he can block, he can run routes,” Watson said. “He’s on track to be a complete tight end, and that’s the thing, those types of guys are able to stay in the league a long time, guys that can do everything.”
Watson would know a little about longevity. In 2018, he became the second-oldest tight end in NFL history to eclipse 300 receiving yards in season. Watson has always had that coveted balance between blocker and receiver that makes him such a valued commodity. And Nauta thinks his play could eventually resemble that of his mentor’s.
“I think we’ve kind of got a similar game,” Nauta said. “We’re both around the same size. He’s got a lot of finesse, especially in his route running. Especially at his age now, he’s not the fastest guy anymore, so you’ve got a be a little more savvy with the way you get things done.”
It’s still a long road for Nauta to make his mark on the league, but with a source like Watson just a phone call away, he’s got a better chance than many.
“In watching him at Georgia and watching him now, I think the sky’s the limit for him,” Watson said. “He definitely has the tools, and he’s proven that he can do it all.”