Here’s how Lions rookies might shake up the depth chart
The Detroit Lions will hold rookie minicamp this weekend, but if you want to know anything more about how the feet-wetting process is going, you'll have to lean on your imagination.
The three-day session is completely closed to the media. And we won't even be hearing from coach Matt Patricia before the practices this year. That's just how it goes around Allen Park these days.
What we do know is this will be the first taste of professional football for the Lions' nine draft picks, more than a dozen undrafted free agents and a couple handfuls of tryout players attempting to make a strong enough impression over the weekend to land a roster spot and a longer look.
It's not an exaggeration to say this will be the last time some players will strap on the pads, while for others, it's hopefully the beginning of a long and prosperous career.
Without the good fortune of setting eyes on the rookies as they learn the ropes running through drills and basic formations, let's take a look at how the first-year group could factor into the depth chart come training camp.
► Tight end T.J. Hockenson
A rarity for the position, being selected among the first 10 picks in the draft, outside expectations will understandably be high for the Iowa product. Lions general manager Bob Quinn expressed confidence Hockenson will be a quick study, but we're all familiar with the difficult transition young tight ends have coming into the league.
He'll probably split time close to evenly with free-agent addition Jesse James this season. If Hockenson manages to catch 40 or more passes, while making good on his reputation as a stellar blocker, it would be be strong start to his career.
► Linebacker Jahlani Tavai
At Hawaii, Tavai split his time between standing up on the line and off the ball in both middle and weakside alignments. That versatility should suit him well in Matt Patricia's defense.
It's disappointing we won't get an early look at where Tavai is lining up his first couple of days in Detroit, to glean whether the Lions are seriously considering moving Jarrad Davis out of the middle linebacker role he's played the last two seasons. The more likely option is Tavai will be the third option in three-linebacker packages to start the year as he develops into the long-term replacement for Christian Jones.
► Safety Will Harris
With Harris' size and speed, you can bet he's going to play a significant role on special teams right out the gate, potentially even working as a gunner on punt coverage. On defense, he has a skill set that allows him to line up both in the box or as the high man patrolling center field. That makes him a long-term backup at both spots with the ability to be a matchup piece against offenses that lean heavily on their tight ends, similar to the way the Lions used DeShawn Shead last year.
► Defensive end Austin Bryant
The Lions have three veteran workhorses on the edges in Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara and Devon Kennard. As long as that trio is healthy, Bryant, the 2017 All-American, will be left to clean up the scraps. At 270 pounds with long arms, he should give the Lions a boost as a pass rusher on clear throwing downs.
► Cornerback Amani Oruwariye
If we are to believe analyst opinions, Oruwariye appears to be the steal of Detroit's draft class. With excellent size, adequate speed and good ball skills, he has the potential to be a good fit as a long-term pairing with Darius Slay. But the pro game allows less contact with receivers, putting an added emphasis on technique. That results in a slow transition for most young cornerbacks, so don't anticipate the rookie to quickly and easily leapfrog a veteran like Rashaan Melvin.
► Wide receiver Travis Fulgham
The Lions starting receivers are set, but there's an opening for a versatile fourth option to replace TJ Jones' spot on the roster. Fulgham's blocking ability is only going to bolster his chances of seeing the field as a rookie. Additionally, he shares some traits with new teammate Marvin Jones, particularly the body control and spatial awareness to haul in deep passes without great separation. If Fulgham can carry that skill into the pro game, his value significantly increases.
► Running back Ty Johnson
When healthy, Johnson has shown to be a patient runner who can get tough yards despite being undersized. In Detroit, he'll need to show he can do more out of the backfield than just carry the ball, especially as a pass-catcher. The expectation is he'll be in the mix as a kick returner, as well.
► Tight end Isaac Nauta
There's a ton of competition in the tight end room. Nauta will have to make his case for a roster spot not just with his versatility on offense, but also his special-teams contributions. He didn't test well at the combine, but the Lions believe Nuata's film is more representative of his abilities.
► Defensive tackle P.J. Johnson
Johnson doesn't have a lot of experience, but he is a massive interior lineman worthy of development. He'll have a shot to make the roster as a fourth defensive tackle, but even if he doesn't, he's a perfect candidate for the practice squad. Either way, he'd benefit from attaching himself at the hip to veteran Damon Harrison.
► Guard Beau Benzschawel
Benzschawel's signing has yet to be announced, but it's been reported the former Wisconsin guard is Detroit bound. He plays a position where the team has an open competition for a starting job, but it would be asking a lot for the undrafted rookie to jump a trio of veterans to claim that job. More realistically, with a strong offseason program, he could push for one of the team's backup interior lineman spots.
► Offensive lineman Ryan Pope
The Lions reportedly awarded Pope the most guaranteed money of any UDFA. That doesn't assure him a job, but it does show how much the team believes in the potential of the 6-foot-7, 320-pounder. The team has room for a developmental tackle on the roster, and if offensive line coach Jeff Davidson can help Pope tap into his talent, those guarantees will be worth every penny.