Lions' T.J. Hockenson aces preseason, but big challenges await in Arizona

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Nine Pro Bowls, two Super Bowl rings and 209.5 combined sacks over 332 NFL career games.

Against a rookie.

That’s T.J. Hockenson’s Week 1 challenge on Sunday against Arizona outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Chandler Jones.

Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson will have his blocking skills put to the test against the Cardinals.

To this point, the Lions rookie tight end has passed all the benchmarks for a top-10 pick: He’s said all the right things, was impressive in training camp and even had a tantalizing few moments in Week 3 of the preseason, traditionally the dress rehearsal for the games that matter.

For him and every other rookie this weekend though, the lights will officially brighten at kickoff.

Billed as a dominant blocker at Iowa, tight ends coach Chris White said Monday that Hockenson lived up to it.

“So far,” White said about the draft’s No. 8 pick. “We’ll see when we get live bullets against Chandler and Suggs, but he’s done a nice job on the line and in space.”

In the passing game, quarterback Matthew Stafford showed a willingness to look for Hockenson near the end zone throughout training camp, and the tight end usually came through.

“We thought he was pretty good at catching the ball, but there’s some plays he’s made in the air that have been really impressive,” White said.

Against Buffalo in the third preseason game, Hockenson caught three Stafford passes for 52 yards, including two catches over three plays on a drive that resulted in Stafford’s only touchdown pass of the preseason.

“Every day you can see him getting better and better. He makes plays out there that we are really, really happy about,” White said.

The good signs continued behind closed doors, White said, where Hockenson is teamed with Logan Thomas and Jesse James in a revamped tight end room.

“Just very consistent, he’s got a great work ethic,” White said. “He wants to be very detailed with all his work, so I think he’s learning a lot from Logan, learned a lot from Jesse.

“There’s a lot of things we can do with all three of them. Hopefully we’ll be able to see two and three of them quite a bit on the field this season.”

Nauta hanging around

Though he didn’t make the 53-man roster, Isaac Nauta will be joining Hockenson, Thomas and James in the tight ends room as a member of Detroit’s 10-man practice squad.

To join them on the Sunday sidelines, White said the Georgia rookie needs to get familiar with Harold Nash Jr.

Nash is the team's football performance coordinator, brought over by the Lions in 2016 after 11 seasons with the Patriots. This will be Nash’s first season in his new role after serving for three years as the team’s strength and conditioning coach.

White said Nauta is further along as a tight end separated from the offensive line, with improved strength being a key toward development closer to the line.

“It’s the strength development, learning all the nuances of playing the position,” White said. “I think this is a great opportunity with the practice squad for him to go out and do that.”

Nauta tested well at the combine, with his 19 reps at bench press tying for seventh among 18 tight ends who lifted — including Hockenson’s 17 reps.

Both of Detroit's seventh-round picks did not make the roster. Unlike defensive tackle P.J. Johnson, Nauta is still around and could have a future in Detroit.

“He’s progressed very well,” White said. “He’s a work in progress. He does some nice things in the pass game and the run game, he just needs to keep developing.”

Moving on up

After late-season activations last year from the practice squad, cornerbacks Dee Virgin and Mike Ford both made the 53-man roster out of camp this season.

Both edged out 2017 second-round pick Teez Tabor and gunner Charles Washington, who could see time in the Arizona secondary on Sunday against the Lions, for spots.

“I just think they were consistent — consistent at getting better, consistent at working hard, being reliable,” defensive backs coach Brian Stewart said. “I just think if you’re playing defensive back, as well as some of the special teams positions they play, not only do you have to be the same person every day, but you have to be the same person getting better every day. 

“I think they did a good job at that.”

Virgin, a third-year player out of West Alabama, played in four games last season for the Lions. Ford, a second-year man out of Southeast Missouri State, appeared in seven games, starting four. 

Both will be special teams contributors for John Bonamego’s units.

“I think you look for, in every player, you look for attention to detail,” Bonamego said in evaluating contributors. “You look for physical skill set. You look for the willingness and the ability to learn, and you look for improvement. 

“Then it’s, do they have the ability and the skill set to handle the responsibilities, to do the job well, to ultimately impact the game and help the team?”

Hitting the books

While seventh-round picks Nauta and Johnson were cut-day casualties, two rookie skill-position players avoided the dreaded call last weekend.

Sixth-rounders Ty Johnson and Travis Fulgham impressed during camp, not only with chunk plays but also with their studies.

Johnson, a running back out of Maryland, seemingly staked his claim to a spot early with emerging pass-catching abilities to add to his game-breaking speed.

He’ll be slotted behind Kerryon Johnson and C.J. Anderson, and running backs coach Kyle Caskey said Ty Johnson is doing what it takes to earn playing time.

“I think it’s the maturity in the meetings,” Caskey said of Johnson’s biggest area of growth. “There’s like a hold back with rookies a lot of times where they don’t want to ask questions in meetings because they don’t want to necessarily seem stupid in front of their peers. But in all reality, they need to ask those questions because if they’re thinking it, someone else is probably thinking it, which is good.”

Johnson’s pass protection acumen remains to be seen with regular-season game reps, but the rookie has been doing what it takes so far.

“It's about trying to be an NFL player and learning that early in his career, not just kind of floating through his rookie year hoping something happens,” Caskey said.

Old Dominion’s Fulgham was one of five wide receivers to make the roster. Similarly, he took the off-the-field challenge of learning schemes quickly, wide receivers coach Robert Prince said.

“I think Travis, since the time he’s gotten here, is starting to learn what it takes to be a pro,” Prince said. “I think his approach to meetings, to note-taking, how to practice, he’s starting to understand what needs to be done.”

Fulgham had seven catches for 147 yards in the preseason. He also lost a fumble late in the third preseason game against Buffalo as the Lions attempted a game-winning drive.

“I think he had a couple flash plays, but he also made mistakes that he was able to learn from,” Prince said. “That’s the biggest thing is that when you make a mistake, let’s learn from them and try not to do it again.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.