Lions rookie tight end Bryant's momentum slowed by injury
Allen Park — The Detroit Lions have a lengthy track record of rewarding an undrafted rookie with a roster spot, but that possibility was always going to be in jeopardy this year after the COVID-19 pandemic significantly reduced the opportunities for those players to prove themselves on the practice field.
Still, through the first week of training camp, tight end Hunter Bryant has been making a case. At least until he suffered an injury — seemingly with his hamstring — during Saturday's practice.
Prior to heading to the locker room, Bryant was doing what he does best, catching passes. More of an F-type tight end, who moves around between the slot and backfield, the former Washington standout has been a problem for Detroit's linebackers and safeties to cover. That's not all that surprising for a guy who hauled in 52 passes for 825 yards for the Huskies last season.
"I think there’s a great deal that he does well in the passing game, and we’ve been able to see a little bit of that," Lions coach Matt Patricia said before Saturday's practice. "I think he’s done an outstanding job first and foremost of just taking advantage of his opportunity with maybe some of the other things that’s going on. He’s gotten out there with some of those groups and has really just done a great job."
But Bryant's blocking is unquestionably a work in progress, and given that he's listed at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, it's unlikely to ever be a strength. That said, Patricia said it's important for the team to develop Bryant in that area since one-dimensional players are easier to scheme against.
"If you make them one-dimensional, then on the flip side of that defensively, you can just look at them as a certain type of player and the matchups become different," Patricia said. "I think we like some of the pass-game stuff that we see with him and certain matchups, but maybe not in other matchups. So being able to have more of a balanced skill set is important. So we need to spend time on that. Obviously working on the things he does well, continuing to build on top of that, but really taking a look at the things that he needs to improve on to make sure that those are up to par also."
Bryant is competing for a spot at the back end of Detroit's roster, with his primary competition coming from year's seventh-round draft pick Isaac Nauta. He has the benefit of year of experience in the system, but like Bryant, injuries could be a factor. Nauta, who started training camp on the COVID-19 reserve list, has been limited with an undisclosed ailment.
At the top of the depth chart, last year's first-round pick T.J. Hockenson figures to see the lion's share of the snaps this season. The team is also looking for a rebound year from Jesse James, who struggled mightily during his first season in a Lions uniform.
So far during camp, James has performed well, feeding into that optimism.
“I think Jesse is having a great camp right now," Patricia said on Friday. "I think he’s working really hard and he’s made some really great catches too.
"Certainly on our end, as coaches, making sure we understand our players and how do we use them to the best of their ability and put them in positions where they can hopefully make plays," Patricia continued. "I think we’re trying to just do more of that with Jesse because we know that he does have a skill set that is valuable to us. He has a big catch radius. He’s a big, tall guy."
James caught just 16 passes in 16 games for the Lions last season, while failing to find the end zone for the first time in his career. The previous three seasons, all with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he averaged 37 receptions, 378 yards and three scores.
The Lions continued to be without running backs D'Andre Swift and Bo Scarbrough on Saturday. Cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and Desmond Trufant, as well as running back Nick Bawden and wide receiver Victor Bolden, were limited to individual drills.