Full-squad practices kick off in Allen Park Thursday, and it won’t be long before the pads start clanging and the competition for starting jobs and roster spots really heats up.
Every year around this time there are a few surprise players who emerge in camp and make a name for themselves. We see players who were drafted late carve out roles, and veteran players have resurgent camps that jump start their careers.
Here’s a look at five players who could surprise people over the next few weeks:
Isaac Nauta, TE
Nauta did not take part in the offseason training program as he was rehabbing an injury, but the Lions were very high on him when it came time to select a player with the first of their two seventh-round picks.
“Did a good workout with him, had a good meeting with him, and just at the board at that time, he was sticking out like a sore thumb,” Lions GM Bob Quinn said after drafting him. “So, we just felt like just a really, really good value. And he’s got position flex, too. He’s a guy that we can kind of move around a little bit. Move him off the ball, move him in the backfield a little bit. He’s got that type of athleticism, that type of just movement skills that he’s not just an in-line guy, he’s not just a receiver guy, he can kind of be an H-type guy that moves.”
Lions tight ends coach Chris White commented about Nauta’s hands this offseason, and the Lions are expected to feature the tight end position more prominently in Darrell Bevell’s offense.
All of that could lead to Nauta having the potential to be an under-the-radar player in camp.
Teez Tabor, CB
Tabor’s struggles his first two seasons in Detroit after being a second-round pick in 2017 are well documented.
Quinn said this offseason he still thought of Tabor as a developing player with upside to his game. To his credit, Tabor rededicated himself to his craft this offseason, and we saw some gains in OTAs and minicamp. Tabor got an opportunity to play considerable reps with the first-team defense with Darius Slay sitting out the offseason training program. Tabor was able to get his hand on some footballs and make a few interceptions.
He also gave up some plays down the field, which has been his Achilles heel early in his career. Can Tabor turn the corner and combine his good playing instincts with the techniques being taught to him to be a contributor in Detroit’s secondary? He certainly has the potential to be a surprise performer in camp if he can do so.
Zach Zenner, RB
Zenner is a well-established veteran contributor, but he’s always entered the regular season as a depth player and special teamer on the roster. His opportunities to get extensive carries have come mostly due to injuries ahead of him on the depth chart.
The way Zenner transformed his body last offseason and finished the season strong as Detroit’s feature back, should make him a true contender to be the No. 2 back behind Kerryon Johnson in 2019. C.J. Anderson was signed this offseason to be in the mix for that role, too, but Zenner could find himself in a position this year where he’s very much a part of the plan in the backfield from the beginning of the season.
Jermaine Kearse, WR
Kearse enjoyed a breakout season in 2017 after signing with the Jets as a free agent. He caught 65 passes for 810 yards and five touchdowns, all career highs. Last season, however, those numbers dipped considerably to 37-371-1.
Kearse signed with the Lions this offseason, seeing Detroit as a good fit with his former offensive coordinator in Seattle – Darrell Bevell – now having the same title in Detroit.
Kearse fits well into Detroit’s mostly veteran group of receivers. He’ll get every opportunity to earn a role alongside Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones Jr. and Danny Amendola.
His familiarity with Bevell’s offense and his desire to have a bounce-back season in 2019 could make Kearse a surprise contributor in camp.
Ty Johnson, RB
The first time Johnson touched the ball in OTAs his speed definitely jumped out. Johnson was clocked in the 4.2 range in the 40 at his pro day in Maryland. That speed was on full display last year returning kickoffs for touchdowns against both Michigan and Ohio State on the road.
Johnson was a sixth-round pick by the Lions in this year’s draft. Sometimes players taken late like him have to earn their way onto the roster playing special teams. In Johnson’s case, that could be returning kickoffs, a job he had in the offseason training program alongside Jamal Agnew and Brandon Powell.
He’ll get an opportunity in the backfield and on special teams to make an impression. Can he surprise some of the important decision makers with his play?