2020 will be an unprecedented NFL season. Two of the many changes the league is making this year is the cancellation of preseason games and doing training camp entirely behind closed doors rather than allowing fans on select dates. While these are likely necessary safety changes in the wake of COVID-19, it also means that Detroit Lions fans will not have any glimpses of this year’s team until Week 1 in September.
This week, we are taking a look at a few players that could have featured heavily in a normal preseason with a chance to make the 53-man roster. We will try to judge their chances to make the roster based off of their resume entering the 2020 season.
Up for consideration today is the Lions’ most exciting UDFA addition: Hunter Bryant.
Hunter Bryant was supposed to be drafted. The Washington Huskies’ tight end was projected to be selected in the later rounds. Many were excited by his route running and ability to play bigger than his small frame.
Unfortunately, he ended up falling out of the draft. Bryant is undersized at 6’2, 239 lbs, and it shows on tape as he struggled as a blocker during his college days. While tight ends can certainly make it in the league despite poor blocking — just look at guys like Eric Ebron and Evan Engram — they usually have to be especially great athletes to compensate. While Bryant tested out okay, his 5.99 Relative Athletic Score grade only makes him an above-average athlete for his size.
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Bryant was still a great tight end at Washington, though. He caught 52 passes for 825 yards and three touchdowns for the Huskies in 2019, leading all PAC 12 tight ends in receiving yards. He did so well as a receiver last year that he declared for the draft after his junior year, a decision he likely regrets at this point.
The rookie landed with Detroit quickly after the draft, though, and now has a chance to earn a spot on an NFL roster despite his undrafted status.
The Lions will likely keep three tight ends on its 53-man roster. The top three guys at the moment are 2019 first round pick T.J. Hockenson, big money tight end Jesse James and 2019 seventh-round pick Isaac Nauta. Hockenson’s current status is unknown, as he was placed on the COVID-19 list by the team last week meaning he either tested positive for the virus or came into contact with someone who did. Assuming he is ready to go for the upcoming season, those are the favorites to hold the roster spots.
Hockenson and James are locks to make the opening day roster. Hockenson will be the starter at tight end (assuming he is healthy), and while James was not great in 2019, it would cost the team an additional $3 million against the cap to cut him. This leaves Nauta as the guy Bryant will be chasing for a roster spot.
Bryant’s path to the roster will be a hard one. First, there is the obvious disadvantage of not having preseason snaps to showcase his skills in actual game situations. Second, he does not really fit what Detroit needs at tight end.
Pure receiving tight ends do not have much of a role on the Lions roster. Both of their top tight ends are guys who can both block and catch, and Nauta is more of a blocker than anything. Detroit seems to want their tight ends to be able to contribute as blockers, especially in the run game. Bryant just does not seem to be a guy that meets their desired specifications.
Bryant not fitting the mold of the “standard Lions tight end” could work to his benefit, though. Throwing him on the field in certain situations could give the Lions a change of pace to create matchup advantages. Unfortunately, even as a receiver it seems that Hockenson can do everything Bryant can. In the end, Nauta likely sticks around because he serves as better depth in case one of the top two guys goes down.
The undrafted tight end is a long shot to make the 53-man roster. If he makes it through waivers post-camp, though, expect him to at least earn himself a spot on the team’s expanded 16-man practice squad.