Niyo: Rookie Roberts catching on with Lions

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Tight end Michael Roberts, right, makes a catch from the passing machine at the end of practice.

Allen Park — Everything’s bigger now. The practice fields. The facilities. The players. Even the football itself.

But that last part is no worry for Michael Roberts, the Lions’ rookie tight end out of Toledo. His hands measured at a near-record 11 5/8 inches at the NFL scouting combine last winter. So the bigger NFL ball — an inch longer in circumference than the ones used in the college game — really is no big deal.

“No, for me, I don’t have too much of a problem with that,” he laughed.

But things are different, he admits. And a difficult adjustment. Even the football, which also doesn’t have the white half-stripes you see in college, making it just a bit tougher to see and catch some days.

Catching on, though, encompasses a lot more than that for NFL rookies, particularly at the tight-end position, where Roberts, a former walk-on who turned himself into a fourth-round draft pick, is busy feeling the heat as the Lions begin training camp.

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Tuesday was “another tone-setter,” as Roberts put it.

The third day of camp, but the first in pads. And for Roberts, like every young player, there were good moments and bad.

“But that’s the biggest challenge,” he said. “The learning curve, the physicality every play and just being the best that you can be every day.”

His coaches like what they’re seeing so far, and they’re getting an even longer look right now, with Eric Ebron sidelined by a minor hamstring injury and the Lions’ running a heavy dose of two tight-end sets on offense.

“He’s been progressing nicely,” Caldwell said after Tuesday’s practice.

“He studies, he’s working at it. Al Golden does a good job with him, getting him to understand everything he needs to do.”

All about technique

There is a lot to learn, certainly. Playing tight end in the NFL requires a different kind of cross-training than some other positions, learning the blocking schemes and routes both in-line and detached, as well as all the backfield protections, “because we put them anywhere and everywhere,” Caldwell said.

“So when you look at those guys, a lot of them, it’s really three positions,” he added. “That’s a workload.”

But it’s one Roberts has eagerly embraced. He says he’s up at 6 a.m. daily now, making sure he’s at the Lions’ training facility 90 minutes early to go through routine and get in some extra studying.

He and his roommate during camp, fellow rookie Kenny Golladay, who is the leading candidate for the No. 3 receiving job, both are making a sizeable competitive leap from the Mid-American Conference.

And for Roberts, who led all NCAA tight ends with 16 touchdowns last season, it didn’t take long to realize it. It was a punch to the chest during a walkthrough on the first day of rookie minicamp, he said, smiling, “And it got even more physical when the vets came.”

But ask the 6-foot-5, 265 pounder about the most important lesson that he has learned the last few months and he’ll answer without hesitation, “That technique beats anything.”

“You know, in college you can kind of get away with poor technique,” he said. “And I was always the biggest one on the field, usually just moving people around. But it’s more about technique here. Everyone’s powerful, everyone’s fast, everyone has an elite level of competition. But if you can combine your power and your athleticism within your technique, you’re gonna have a career.”

Building blocks

First, though, you’re gonna have to take some lumps. Roberts has flashed some of his raw ability already in camp with several impressive catches in traffic.

But he only got a single rep in one-on-one pass-rushing drills Tuesday and was beaten by third-year pro Brandon Copeland. He took that in stride, though.

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“It wasn’t a great rep, but ‘OK, now I get to watch that and see what I did wrong,’” he said. “And now I’m excited to come out here tomorrow and do it again and try to better myself.”

That’s what he did during the NFL’s five-week offseason break this summer, too. Roberts headed out to California to work with a personal trainer and also flew to Atlanta at the invitation — and expense — of Matthew Stafford, joining Ebron and a few receivers for some informal workouts with the Lions’ quarterback.

It was a chance to bond with some of his veteran teammates, getting to know them better on a personal level, going out to dinner or just hanging out at Stafford’s home there.

But it was also a chance to gain a better understanding of the task at hand.

“That chemistry, I think, is very important,” Roberts said. “He needs to know where I’m gonna be on the field and he needs to trust me. And that’s just what I’m trying to build.”

Little by little, that’s how it’s done. Because this is a big opportunity, Roberts knows, “and it doesn’t last forever.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo