Every year a talented player goes undrafted and no one can really put a finger on exactly why. Last season, the Detroit Lions landed that player in tight end Hunter Bryant.
Bryant was a highly productive tight end at Washington, and it was quite surprising that he went undrafted. Both Dane Brugler of The Athletic and PFF (among others) tabbed Bryant as the best UDFA in the 2020 draft cycle and they had him ranked as the 134th and 79th player on their big boards, respectively.
This is the ninth installment in a series of articles at Pride of Detroit where we will examine the snap counts for the Lions’ rookies during the 2020 season. You can read the previous seven articles in this series here: Jeff Okudah, D’Andre Swift, Julian Okwara, Jonah Jackson, Logan Stenberg, Quintez Cephus, John Penisini, and Jashon Cornell.
Hunter Bryant, TE: Undrafted Free Agent
With the Lions returning their top three tight ends from the previous season—T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James, and Isaac Nauta—the path to the roster for Bryant had some obstacles.
Fortunately, he played well enough during his first week of training camp that he caught the attention of Matthew Stafford. Unfortunately, in the second week of training camp, he pulled his hamstring and missed the rest of the practices leading up to the regular season.
When it came time for cutdowns, the work Bryant did in just one week impressed the coaching staff (and Stafford) enough that he earned a spot on the 53-man roster, jumping Nauta on the depth chart.
So heading into Week 1, Bryant was reportedly close to returning from his hamstring injury and the coaches expected him to be ready to play as the team's third tight end early on in the regular season.
Bryant’s 2020 snap counts
Whoops. Bryant’s hamstring injury would linger for another six weeks. He began practicing in Week 4 and by Week 7 he was practicing in full and ready to return to action. Then he suffered a concussion in practice and needed to be placed on injured reserve. Even though 2020 IR rules only prohibited Bryant from playing three weeks, he required six in total to be full symptoms free and ready for game action.
In Week 13, Bryant made his NFL debut, but he would not see a target from Stafford until Week 15 when he made his first NFL catch an impressive one:
#NFL, meet Hunter Bryant#DETvsTEN | CBS | #OnePride pic.twitter.com/Yh2rCwyOu7— Detroit Lions (@Lions) December 20, 2020
That would be Bryant’s lone reception on the season.
For a player with such high expectations, and a coaching staff that was willing to keep him rostered with the hopes he could find the field and make an impact, Bryant’s rookie season was a disappointing one.
Bryant entered the offseason as the Lions’ anticipated third tight end but once again he was bit by the injury bug. Bryant suffered an undisclosed injury and it was significant enough that the team was comfortable making a roster move.
Because Bryant was injured away from the Lions' training facility, his injury is designated as a non-football injury (even if he was training on his own) and comes with a set of procedures that is different than simply placing a player on injured reserve. First, the Lions had to release Bryant from the roster and hope he cleared waivers, which he did. After no team claimed him, he reverted back to the Lions’ roster and they were able to place him on the reserve/NFI list.
When a player is assigned an NFI designation list they must sit out a specific length of time depending on when they were added to the list. It’s unusual for a player to be placed on the NFI in April and it’s unclear, at this time, how long Bryant will be required to sit out—assuming he is healthy enough to return.
If Bryant is able to return to practice at full strength and is cleared from the NFI list, he has enough talent to immediately challenge for the third tight end spot again. Unfortunately, we don’t know when that will be.