The Detroit Lions’ tight end position has been in flux ever since the team decided to move on from Eric Ebron. They’ve devoted a top-10 pick to the position, spent a ton of money on a free agent, and played musical chairs with talented players like Darren Fells, Levine Toilolo, and Luke Willson.
But it may be a seventh-round pick that could have a longer-lasting career in Detroit than most those listed above.
Let’s talk about Isaac Nauta for a bit.
Expectations heading into 2019
As a seventh-round pick, there were almost no expectations for the former Georgia Bulldog in his rookie season. Having drafted T.J. Hockenson in the first round and unlocking the vault for free agent Jesse James, the Lions likely saw Nauta’s rookie season as a learning year, spending most of the season on the sideline, seeing what he could potentially grow into.
That all being said, there was certainly some optimism that Nauta could eventually be a weapon on this team. He had a modest, but productive, career at Georgia. And though he had a horrible NFL Combine, he was a five-star recruit out of high school and he was incredibly efficient when he got his opportunities in college.
Actual role in 2019
2019 stats: 6 games (0 starts): 2 catches, 13 yards
PFF grade: 55.7 (48th out of 67 TEs)
As expected, Nauta didn’t end up making the team, as the Lions went with Hockenson, James and Logan Thomas, instead. The Lions did, however, keep Nauta around on the practice squad for the first three months of the season.
However, when fullback Nick Bawden was injured in late November, that’s when Nauta got his first NFL action. For the next five games, Nauta would serve as the team’s fullback, logging between five and 10 snaps per game. He also dabbled a little as a tight end, pulling in seven total snaps on the year.
His main contributions, however, were on special teams. He had a total of 82 snaps in six games on special teams, mostly on punt coverage and kick return.
It’s hard to really give any sort of analysis to Nauta’s play, given his very limited playing time, but it’s safe to say he has a ways to go before we consider him a lock for any roster.
Outlook for 2020
Contract status: Signed through 2020 (ERFA in 2021)
That all being said, Nauta’s contributions at fullback may have given him an avenue to make the roster this year. Former seventh-round pick Nick Bawden hasn’t made much of a positive impression in his two years in Detroit, and Nauta could provide a more versatile, slightly younger option at fullback. Bawden does bring a little more versatility in special teams (played in all four units), and graded out higher in that role than Nauta did (61.6 vs. 57.8).
Still, if Nauta comes into 2020 ready to increase his role on special teams, while prepared to play both tight end and fullback on offense, he could be the easy choice on the 53-man roster over Nick Bawden. Nauta doesn’t have a lot of great competition for the TE3 role this year—only really having to compete with undrafted rookie Hunter Bryant—so if the level in talent between Bawden and Nauta is minimal, it would make sense for Detroit to economically use just a single roster spot for TE3 and fullback—a position that typically doesn’t get more than 10 snaps a game.
2020 is a huge year for Nauta. He could either fall of the roster entirely and be looking for a new home, or he could establish himself as the team’s fullback and a key member of the franchise’s special teams unit.