Lions notes: Rookie safety impressing; second-year tight end making notable strides

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Westfield, Ind. — — In the preseason opener, 76 players logged at least one snap for the Detroit Lions, but it was the one who recorded the most who caught coach Dan Campbell's eye. 

"Well, look, I would say Kerby (Joseph) showed up," Campbell said when asked which players stood out after reviewing the film from the game. "Didn’t quite know where he was going to be at or what it was going to look like. And we’ve been on his rear in practice. I mean, we’ve been pretty hard on him, and he’s needed it. But he showed up. I mean the lights came on, and he did some things on special teams and on defense that is extremely encouraging."

Lions safety Kerby Joseph (left) logged six tackles in Friday's preseason opener against the Falcons.

Joseph tied safety JuJu Hughes for the most defensive snaps at 43, while also playing the second-most reps on special teams. Joseph finished with a team-high six tackles, doubling the next most for a Lions defender. 

A third-round pick out of Illinois, the converted receiver is coming off a season where he tallied 57 stops and a team-high five interceptions, earning second-team, all-Big Ten honors. 

General manager Brad Holmes called Joseph a player in need of development after making the selection in April, but the coaching staff has consistently praised the young safety for staying ahead of the curve

"Kerby is doing a good job," position coach Brian Duker said last week. "The biggest thing that we've always known about Kerby is he's going to have great range and really good ball skills. I think he's shown that all camp. He's really progressed in the pre-snap communication side of it. He's getting better at his run fits, all those kinds of things. I'm really happy with where Kerby is. Just as a young guy, he's got elite traits and we're rounding out his game at this point."

Making strides

T.J. Hockenson remains the unquestioned leader of Detroit's tight end group, but second-year man Brock Wright has staked a relatively firm claim as the team's No. 2 option.

An undrafted rookie out of Notre Dame a year ago, Wright saw playing time with the first-team offense in the preseason opener, catching an 18-yard pass and throwing a key block on D'Andre Swift's 9-yard touchdown run during the game's opening possession. 

“He’s stepping up," Campbell said. "He’s made big strides. I would say, (in the) spring we were actually hoping for a little bit more of a jump than we got. He did a good job, but man, we get him in camp, and now the pads come on, and he’s really growing. ... Just the run blocking is getting better, the pass protection is starting to show up, and then I swear that guy it’s like man, when you need a play in the pass game, he’s where he’s supposed to be, he shows up, he makes the play."

The 6-foot-5, nearly 260-pound Wright came to Detroit with the reputation of being a block-first tight end. In fact, he was almost a non-factor in the pass game for the Fighting Irish, recording a meager seven receptions for 78 yards in 48 appearances across four seasons. 

But Wright immediately flashed more athleticism than the Lions anticipated upon his arrival. Initially earning a spot on the practice squad, he worked his way up to a large role on the main roster during the second half of last season, helping fill the void after Hockenson suffered a season-ending injury. In just 10 games with the Lions, he ended up besting his receiving output from college, hauling in 12 passes for 117 yards and two scores. 

The blocking, as it does for many rookies, lagged behind. Campbell, a former tight end who played 10 seasons in the NFL, said adjusting to the athleticism and length of NFL defenders is a difficult challenge for nearly every young tight end coming into the league. 

Not surprisingly, improving in that department has been a point of emphasis for Wright. 

"First thing starts with pad level," position coach Tanner Engstrand said. "That's one of the things he's working on, on a daily basis. Pad level and hand placement are a couple of the things that we really focus on with him. If he can continue to get better in that area, I think he's got the strength and the size to become a really good blocking tight end."

Injury update

Fullback Jason Cabinda and defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike are among a small group of players who won't travel with the team to Indianapolis this week as they continue to rehab injuries. 

Cabinda has been on the physically unable to perform list since the start of camp due to an ankle injury. Campbell noted the issue has lingered longer than expected, casting doubt on Cabinda's status for Week 1 of the regular season. 

As for Onwuzurike, he suffered a back/hip injury early in camp and still doesn't have a timetable to return to practice.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers