Lions TE Michael Roberts has clear path for breakout

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Michael Roberts

Allen Park — At no point in his NFL career is a player expected to improve more than from year one to two.

The learning process for a rookie is a whirlwind of information that can be overwhelming for many to process. By year two, there’s a comfort level. A player is able to absorb and apply information more quickly with a season’s worth of practice, film study and on-field application.

For the Detroit Lions, there’s lofty expectations for the team’s second-year players.

Linebacker Jarrad Davis, after shouldering a heavy workload in 2017, will be looked to as a leader of the defense this season. Cornerback Teez Tabor, the team’s second-round pick a year ago, spent much of his first season learning from the bench, before carving out a role late in the year. And despite a stacked depth chart in the secondary, Tabor’s role and production should grow significantly. And third-round receiver Kenny Golladay, who battled a hamstring injury as a rookie, is viewed as a legitimate big-play threat as the third option in the passing game.

But of all the Lions’ second-year players, the one with perhaps the best opportunity to improve his role is tight end Michael Roberts.

“He’s very athletic, working hard, very focused in, I’m excited for him,” teammate Luke Willson said. “The sky is the limit for him and he’s been a great part of the room.”

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The Lions overhauled the tight end room this offseason. Gone are former first-round pick Eric Ebron and veteran Darren Fells, who combined to account for nearly 1,100 snaps while recording 70 catches for 751 yards and seven touchdowns in 2017.

In their place, the Lions signed a pair of veterans to one-year deals. And while their potential is better than the past production, Willson and Levine Toilolo did muster only 27 receptions and 275 yards between them last season.

That turnover creates an opening for Roberts, who saw 220 snaps as a rookie, to take advantage of the opportunity.

“I expect more,” Roberts said. “I’m hungry. I was hungry last year, but it’s really time now. I’ll just continue to make plays each and every time the ball comes my way and make plays away from the ball, as well, be an all-around tight end.”

A premier red-zone threat coming out of Toledo, Roberts caught 16 touchdown passes his senior season. But with Ebron and Fells handling most of the pass-catching assignments for the Lions last season, the team focused on building up Roberts as a blocker.

By the end of the season, his improvement in that area was apparent. According to Pro Football Focus, Roberts graded out as the team’s best run-blocking tight end last season.

“It taught me a lot,” Roberts said about the Lions’ developmental approach. “I learned a lot about blocking and I learned a lot about just being a professional, really settling into a role until it’s your time and not being as greedy. I had to just play a role last year and I wasn’t used to that. It taught me a lot about myself and how to move through the system.”

With a foundation built on his blocking, Roberts is looking to expand his contributions within the offense this season. As a rookie he caught only four passes, but during last week’s OTA practice, he hauled in three touchdowns. That included a pair requiring full extension, and another over his shoulder, teasing the weapon he can be.

“Every time the ball is in the air, my eyes get big. It’s just about making plays,” Roberts said.  “I made a couple (nice plays), but I’ve got to make more.”