ALLEN PARK -- Washington tight end Hunter Byant caught 52 passes for 825 yards and three touchdowns last year, making it the second-most productive season by a tight end in school history.
He was named first-team all-conference, second-team All-American and a finalist for the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end. That’s not bad. At 6-foot-2 and 248 pounds, he’s also a little undersized for the NFL.
Still, he was widely regarded as a middle-round prospect.
And then he wasn’t drafted at all.
That could have something to do with Bryant’s size, or maybe the knee injuries he’s had in the past. But his loss in the draft is to the Lions’ gain in free agency.
Detroit is signing Bryant to an undrafted rookie deal, landing the club one of the most-prized UDFAs of the year.
“Scouts feel like he’s more of a big slot receiver in the pros,” NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein said. "He doesn’t have ideal size or determination as a blocker, but he has sticky hands with the acceleration to work past linebackers and threaten seams. He’s a straight-line mover who gets bogged down in and out of breaks. He has playmaking ability but needs linear routes that allow him to keep moving on all three levels.
“Bryant is a scheme-dependent pass-catcher with a higher ceiling, but lower floor and a history of knee injuries that will need clearance by NFL medical staffs.”
Sounds like there are some concerns there -- as there are with almost all the players available at this point -- but there is some real upside as a pass-catcher too. And the Lions could certainly use some of that behind T.J. Hockenson.
Jesse James and Isaac Nauta are both back at tight end, but neither did much in his debut with Detroit last year.
The Lions have broken camp with at least one undrafted player each of the last nine seasons. In fact, three made their initial roster last year in defensive tackle Kevin Strong, offensive lineman Beau Benzschawel and safety/special teams ace C.J. Moore.
But this year’s group will have a difficult path to the roster due to the coronavirus, which has already wiped out rookie minicamps and OTAs across the league. Teams can conduct programs virtually, but fewer practices will mean fewer opportunities for undrafted players to get better and stand out.
“Their time to impress and get on the radar and get real reps in training camp is during the spring because you have more opportunities,” general manager Bob Quinn said recently. "Some of your veterans aren’t taking as many reps, as you guys know, in the OTA practices. So, you can get a lot of these young, late draft picks and rookie free agents a ton of reps in the spring.
“And then if they show that they are capable and they deserve a chance to compete, then they are going to get more reps during the early part of training camp to really be able to make the team.”
Strong, Benzschawel and Moore all made the team out of camp last year and spent 17 weeks on the roster. The year before that, Brandon Powell made the cut after going undrafted out of Florida. Other notable UDFAs to make the roster in the last nine seasons include running back Zach Zenner (South Dakota State), tight end Joseph Fauria (UCLA), tackle LaAdrian Waddle (Texas Tech) and quarterback Kellen Moore (Boise State).
Quinn said he expected to sign about 7-10 UDFAs this year, which is way down from usual because of the coronavirus.