Upgrading their tight end position has to be high up on the New England Patriots’ list of to-dos this offseason, and luckily for the team there appears to be plenty of talent available both in free agency and the draft. If the club wants to explore the second route and add some youth and developmental upside to a group that had only a limited impact on the offensive production in 2019, it will likely wait until day two to invest a draft pick.
Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet and Dayton’s Adam Trautman are the current top two at the position after the scouting combine due to their athletic profile in combination with their upside as both receivers and blockers. Other players, who are a bit more one-dimensional at this point in their respective careers, also will be available in rounds two or three in case both Kmet and Trautman come off the board before New England is on the clock.
A member of this second tier is Hunter Bryant. Rated as the number one tight end by advanced analytics website Pro Football Focus, the Washington product might just be the most natural pass catcher at his position this year: he offers and knows how to execute a diverse route tree, has the size — 6-foot-2, 248 pounds — to win contested catches and jump-balls, and offers considerable burst to generate yards after the catch.
If there is one area Bryant needs to improve it is his blocking. He has a serviceable but not exactly great frame to successfully function as an in-line blocker at the next level, which means that he will need to vastly improve his technique and power at the point of attack in order to make up for it. It does sound as if the 21-year-old is aware of that, however, and focused on becoming a more complete tight end upon entering the NFL
“I definitely want to be a mixture of both. I think that is where I’m taking my game, especially with what I do on the receiving side — I think I’m pretty good at that. And then my blocking side is getting a lot better, and I know what I need to do to get it to like an All-Pro level,” Bryant told reporters during his media availability session at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis last week (via The Draft Network’s Jordan Reid).
The draft hopeful added that his goal was to become a three-down player at the next level that could help a team no matter the situation — something that was partially the case at Washington: “I definitely had a lot of fun doing it this year. I found the love for it. Moving forward, I’d definitely do it a lot more. And really just keep getting a lot better, so I can be a three-down player in the NFL and never have to come off the field.”
New England did not have an all-around tight end like that in 2019 after the retirement of future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski. Free agency acquisition Matt LaCosse was used more as a blocker and offered little in the passing game, while veteran Benjamin Watson was a limited receiving threat but still used that way more often than not. Second-year man Ryan Izzo, meanwhile, was also primarily a blocking tight end but a non-factor over the second half of the season.
If he can improve his blocking while also continuing to work on his receiving skills, Bryant would project to become an immediate upgrade over all three tight ends New England had on its final 53-man roster last year. Of course, the Washington product knows that playing such a nuanced role has its own challenges — challenges that Gronkowski, for example, mastered but that plenty of tight ends are incapable of truly overcoming during their careers.
The same goes for lining up all over the formation, something that Bryant did in college and thinks has benefitted his development: “It is a big difference between being flexed out with a corner or safety pressing on you, or in-line with a linebacker playing off of you. There are releases you will use that are a lot different, your routes are going to be a lot different. So I think my ability to do both of those is pretty big for me.”
“I think it’s a lot of fun, just switching it up from a corner to a linebacker to the safety — having all those different guys and all those different techniques played on you that means that you’re going to have a lot more variation in your releases and just open up your game to a whole different level. I’ve had a lot of fun with it,” he said. Whether the fun continues at the next level — or possibly in New England — remains to be seen, but Bryant certainly has the talent to become a starting-caliber tight end in the NFL.
While Kmet and Trautman are the 1A and 1B at the position at the moment, Bryant appears to be a solid consolation prize in case the Patriots miss out on them. That’s not too bad an outlook.