What promised to be an offseason of sweeping change at the tight end position for the Detroit Lions has been just that.
Assistant coach Chris White put it succinctly when asked this week about the high turnover.
“There’s been a lot going on,” White said.
A lot, indeed.
The makeup of the six-man unit going through the second week of OTA practices reflects the turnover necessitated by lack of production last season.
Jesse James and Logan Thomas were signed as unrestricted free agents. The draft added T.J. Hockenson of Iowa in the first round, and Isaac Nauta of Georgia in the seventh.
The only holdovers are Michael Roberts and Jerome Cunningham. Roberts is a 2017 fourth-round draft pick by the Lions who has 13 career catches in 23 games with five starts. Cunningham played three games for the Lions last year without a catch. All eight of his career catches were in nine games with the Giants in 2015.
There are some obvious front runners for roster spots, but the competition likely will continue until the mandatory cuts.
“Competition is fierce,” White said. “All of them are in the plans, in my mind. We have to make tough decisions when that time comes. You don’t know about injuries.”
Following are White’s observations on the tight ends in the offseason program, which began with the veterans on April 14 and the rookies May 9:
Jesse James: “He’s a grinder,” White said. “He has stood out with the players from day one, and with the coaches. He has that leadership ability. He doesn’t talk a lot, but he gets instant respect from the coaches in that part of it.”
James signed with the Lions after four seasons with the Steelers in part for an expanded role. He averaged 37.3 catches in his last three seasons with the Steelers after having eight as a rookie.
“I think he was looking for that opportunity that he would be kind of the featured guy,” White said. “I expect him to be a really good influence in the room.”
Logan Thomas: Drafted as a quarterback by the Cardinals in the fourth round in 2014 and converted to tight end by the Bills the last two seasons, Thomas had 19 catches with the Bills.
“He’s a really good athlete,” White said. “He can run and catch. He’s long. All of these guys have really big catching radiuses and hand-eye coordination. I look forward to seeing them with pads on – especially Logan.”
Thomas' quarterback experience is an asset, White said.
“He can see the big picture, which is really cool,” White said.
Hockenson: Playing multiple sports growing up before concentrating on football in college has made him a well rounded athlete, White said.
“There’s a lot to like about him,” White said. “To me, he’s a complete tight end. He can play first, second and third down. He can move. He does a nice job in the run game. He creates separation in the passing game. The overall evaluation was, he can do everything we wanted him to do.
“He’s a natural ball catcher. He’s got really good hand-eye coordination. The thing I’ve been Impressed with is, he has a knack of kind of separating. He wasn’t the fastest tight end at the Combine. He has a way of getting open. He’s kind of savvy – that type of football player. Things you can’t really teach.”
Nauta: In the Lions’ evaluations, he was a value pick in the seventh round based on his play in three seasons at Georgia.
Nauta is rehabbing from an injury and not taking part in position and team drills.
“We loved his tape (in college),” White said. “I thought he had the best hands of all the tight ends in the draft. He’s just effortless catching the ball – making really tough catches. We’re trying to see where he fits. I think he’ll have a nice little niche.”
Roberts: He’s built for the position with a big frame (6-5, 265) huge hands and long arms. Injuries and inconsistency have kept him from making the most of those qualities. This likely is a pivotal season for him.
“He’s done a nice job this offseason,” White said. “He’s quietly just grinding away, working at learning the offense, learning to be a more complete player in all aspects. I like the way he’s working. He’s going to have every opportunity to prove himself.
“He’s a gifted athlete. He needs to stay healthy.”
Cunningham: As White said a couple times, “competition is fierce,” and Cunningham has competed for roster spots since first signing with the Giants in 2014 out of Southern Connecticut State.
“Jerome is trying to catch a role,” White said.