While Amon-Ra St. Brown made most of the headlines during Tuesday’s training camp practice, Detroit Lions rookie tight end Sam LaPorta was busy stacking another day of solid production. He made a photogenic leaping grab over linebacker Alex Anzalone and scored a couple of red zone touchdowns.
“Sam is learning a lot, he’s got great movement skills,” offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said on Wednesday morning. “He made some plays in the passing game yesterday that was pretty good to see. Getting in and out of breaks, impressive.”
In the spring, LaPorta was working mostly with the second and third-team offenses. That wasn’t a knock on his play, it’s simply how the Lions operate with their young players. You start at the bottom of the depth chart and have to work your way up. Now, just a few days into training camp practices, LaPorta is a regular feature with the first stringers alongside quarterback Jared Goff.
“As a coaching staff, we’re very much, ‘You need to earn your stripes.’ And so you saw in the springtime, he got minimal work with the first team and he’s earned the right now to be in that first team huddle with Jared and that offensive line,” Johnson said. “He’s proven that over the course of the springtime and the work that he’s put in. So, encouraged with where he’s going.
“He’s still making mistakes, he’s still learning, we are putting a lot of pressure on him to pick it up, but I think he’s in a really good spot for a first-year tight end.”
First-team reps are a nice sign that LaPorta will be an integral part of the offense this year, and getting those early snaps with Goff in command is key to developing chemistry before the season starts.
“It’s great to just be in the huddle, to hear the play call, to be out there with the ones, to get that opportunity,” LaPorta told reporters after Wednesday’s practice. “I believe it’s speeding up the progress which I’m playing and just how the game is slowing down for me.”
The next challenge for the rookie tight end await when the pads come at the end of the week. He’s flashed plenty as a receiver, but blocking at the NFL level will be an entirely different beast. At Iowa, he set the program record for receptions in a career, but his run blocking was inconsistent—earning PFF grades 71.2, 52.2 and 53.1. in his three seasons as a starter. Still, the Lions are optimistic he’ll rise to the challenge and has the necessary skill set.
“Tight ends that can’t block really are glorified receivers and that’s really a lot of Sam’s value that he had at Iowa was the ability to do both, be a pass catcher and also a run blocker,” Johnson said. “So, looking forward to see that versatility come to life when we do get the pads on.”
LaPorta’s credits some of his rapid development to the two former NFL tight ends bookending him on the coaching staff—tight ends coach Steve Heiden and head coach Dan Campbell. Together, those two have a combined 21 seasons and 262 games worth of playing experience to offer guidance to the rookie tight end.
“Their experience, it’s really the nuanced details,” LaPorta said. “You can go and draw the straight lines on a playbook. Anybody can go out and run that straight line, but it’s really those nuanced details that coach Campbell and coach Heiden with their experience—10 plus years each of them—it’s just really valuable for me.”