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2020 Detroit Lions training camp preview: Tight ends

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A look at the biggest training camp storylines for the Lions’ tight end room.

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NFL: Detroit Lions-Training Camp Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The tight end position in the NFL can be one of the biggest mismatches the game of football has to offer. You get a big, bulky tight end that can also run crisp routes and aggressively attack the ball in the air, and there’s probably only a handful of defenders on this Earth that can stop him. If that guy can block, too? Game over.

The Detroit Lions have been seeking this elusive player for years now, and they think they may have him in T.J. Hockenson. But how he plays in 2020 is only part of the story here, as Detroit’s depth provides equal parts frustration and excitement.

Here’s our 2020 training camp preview for the tight end position.

Previously: Quarterbacks, running backs

Tight ends

Roster locks: T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James,
On the bubble: Isaac Nauta, Nick Bawden (yes, I know he’s a fullback)
Long shot: Hunter Bryant, Matt Sokol
Key departures: Logan Thomas

Is Hockenson healthy enough to start?

A month back, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell noted that Hockenson was not quite 100 percent after a severe ankle injury suffered on Thanksgiving. Since then, we’ve seen video of him cutting routes pretty aggressively, suggesting he’s very close to done with his rehab.

However, it’s important to note that during rehabilitation, Hockenson was likely unable to keep his lower body in shape, as he was in a scooter for at least a month. There’s a non-zero chance he starts training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list in order to simply get back in complete football shape. That being said, it would be a surprise if he wasn’t ready by Week 1 of the regular season.

Stuck with James

Yes, we were all disappointed by Jesse James’ first year in Detroit, but don’t go expecting the Lions to cut bail this early in his contract. Not only is it financially irresponsible—it would result in over $8 million in dead cap split between 2020 and 2021—but it seems like the Lions are truly devoted to getting him more involved this year.

Nauta or Bawden (or both)?

I slipped Nick Bawden into this section simply because his roster spot is threatened specifically by Isaac Nauta. Last year after Bawden suffered an injury, Nauta took over as fullback, potentially opening the door for Detroit to forego a roster spot for a pure fullback. Keeping Nauta as a hybrid tight end and fullback would make sense in terms of keeping your roster spots economical, but Nauta is far from a proven talent as a fullback. Additionally, he’ll likely be the team’s TE3 this year, which means he may play a prominent role on offense (think Logan Thomas last year), and Detroit may want him focused there.

Bawden was also a significant contributor on special teams—playing on all four coverage/return teams. Nauta, on the other hand, just barely got his feet wet on special teams in his rookie season.

UDFA darling?

Everyone loves to root for undrafted rookies, and this year’s darling could very well be Washington's’ Hunter Bryant. He was considered by many to be one of the best undrafted free agents available, earning first team All-Pac 12 in 2019 following a season where he caught 52 balls for 825 yards. He’s also a PFF stud:

“He has arguably the best receiving chops of any tight end in this class, putting up a receiving grade of 91.7 since 2017 to go along with a class-high 2.90 yards per route run,” wrote PFF’s Ben Linsey.

But considering the rookie wall that most tight ends face and the fact that Detroit likely has three players firmly ahead of him on the depth chart, it will be hard to see how Bryant makes the final roster. If Detroit can stash him on the practice squad, he’ll be a nice project that could contend for some serious playing time in 2021.

Prediction:

Hockenson, James, Nauta and Bawden all make the roster. While I personally think it’s a slight waste to keep Bawden as a pure fullback when Detroit only uses that position 5-10 times a game, he is clearly the better fullback, and his contributions on special teams are significant. We know this coaching staff loves special teams guys, so I believe they’ll think a fullback who is on every special teams unit is more than enough to justify a roster spot. Nauta will stay on a TE3, while they’ll try to stash Bryant on the practice squad.