Following the (temporary) retirement of Rob Gronkowski last offseason, the New England Patriots failed not just to find a proper replacement but to build a competitive tight end corps in general: neither free agency additions Matt LaCosse and Benjamin Watson, nor second-year man Ryan Izzo were able to elevate the Patriots’ offense through their receiving contributions or their play as blockers in the running game.
Following a rather inactive free agency period, the Patriots are heading into this week’s draft left with only LaCosse and Izzo currently remaining on their roster. While there is a chance that the team projects both to make a jump heading into their second real seasons in the system (Izzo missed his entire 2018 rookie campaign due to injury), it seems likely that New England will invest in the position over the next three days.
We have already looked at four of the better prospects at the position earlier during the offseason — Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet, Dayton’s Adam Trautman, Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins, LSU’s Thaddeus Moss — and now will dissect another tight end projected to come off the board in one of the middle rounds: Washington’s Hunter Bryant.
Name: Hunter Bryant
Position: Tight end
School: Washington (junior)
Opening day age: 22
2019 stats: 12 games; 626 snaps; 80 targets, 52 receptions (5 drops), 825 receiving yards, 3 receiving touchdowns; 2 rushing attempts, -4 rushing yards
Size: 6022, 248 lbs, 10.38 hand size, 32.0 arm length
Workout numbers: 4.74 40-yard dash, 7.08 three-cone drill, 4.46 short shuttle, 907 broad jump, 32.5 vertical jump, 23 bench press
Expected round: 3rd-4th
Patriots pre-draft meeting: Scouting combine
Strengths: Bryant is as impressive a receiving tight end as any in this year’s draft. He runs some crisp routes and offers a diverse route tree, and has the speed as well as the natural feel for space and timing to move successfully when operating in the open. He also offers some impressive burst and balance when heading into his patterns and is capable of executing good-looking cuts at the top of it. His ball skills and abilities to adjust to passes when in the air are impressive, and allow him to make catches outside his frame on a regular basis.
Bryant also is very good after the catch, quickly turning into a runner following a reception due to his very quick acceleration: he is a threat on crossing patterns against zone looks and capable of breaking tackles when moving full speed. He has also shown that he can successfully execute blocks when on the move or in open space. Furthermore, he offers some desired versatility. While he does not project favorably as an in-line tight end, he has experience lining up all over the formation as a flex-receiver.
Weaknesses: Bryant’s biggest weakness entering the NFL is his blocking. His ability to anchor at the point of attack has been insufficient, and he needs to improve his hand usage and ability to lower his anchor when absorbing blows. His lack of size — Bryant was measured at just over 6-foot-2, 248 pounds as the scouting combine — limits his abilities when playing form an in-line position and could prove a problem when going against bigger and athletically impressive defenders at the next level. He furthermore also does not project to be a TE1 at the next level, but rather a complementary piece whose contributions in the running game could be limited.
Even though Bryant’s forte is the receiving game, however, there are also areas that he needs to improve: he needs to be better at standing his grounds when physically challenged by press-man coverage, has had some concentration drops, and must show that he can execute his breaks more consistently. On top of it all, he enters the pro level with a considerable injury history: Bryant suffered a sprained ACL and LCL in his left knee in 2017 and also hurt the meniscus in the same knee one year later 2018.
What would be his role? The Huskies used Bryant all over the formation in their spread offense, and he projects most favorably in a similar role at the next level: due to his natural skills as a pass catcher and mover in open space, he would likely fill the F/move tight end role in the Patriots’ system and line up in the slot as well as split out wide and maybe also in the backfield in select situations. Such a usage would certainly play to his athletic strengths while it simultaneously also limiting his in-line blocking responsibilities.
How many downs can he play? Given his lack of size in combination with limited power at the point of attack, Bryant should not be expected to be used as an in-line blocker which in turn will limit his situational value at the next level: he will likely see most of his action in passing situations — third downs and up-tempo drills, for example — and in the kicking game. While he could be used in a fullback-type role to block on the move rather than out of a three-point stance, he will probably not enter the field onn more than two offensive downs on any given series.
What is his special teams value? New England had a total of four tight ends on its roster at some point in 2019 — the aforementioned LaCosse, Izzo and Watson as well as short-time pickup Eric Tomlinson — and they combined to play only 13 snaps on special teams all year. The Patriots have previously used tight ends in the kicking game as well, though, so it would not be a surprise to see them employ Bryant on punt and kickoff coverage units as well as as on field goal/extra point protection if he can improve his blocking.
Does he have positional versatility? While his blocking and size leave a lot to be desired and eventually will limit his usage as an all-around tight end in the mold of Rob Gronkowski, Bryant does offer a nice level of positional versatility. Working as a flex option, he should see regular action not just in the slot but also split out wide — playing both the Y-receiver role from the interior as well as the Z-role moving around the formation. His superb athletic makeup should make him a chess-piece receiver capable of becoming a mismatch-nightmare.
Will his role change from Year One to Year Two? Bryant already offers some good upside as a receiver upon entering the NFL, but cannot yet be trusted to consistently match up against defensive linemen in blocking situations. If there is a room for improvement between Years One and Two, therefore, this is it: his role development from 2020 to 2021 depends largely on how he will fare as a blocker at the next level and if he can clean up his technique and become a more powerful finisher.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? Given that Bryant is projected to come off the board late on the second day or early on the third day of the draft, he should be considered a lock to make the Patriots’ 55-man roster. The only question would therefore be whether or not he would beat out Matt LaCosse and/or additional rookie tight ends for the number one receiving role. Given his receiving skills, however, chances would look good.
Why the Patriots? The lack of a viable receiving option played a big part in the Patriots’ tight end position struggling in 2019. Bryant would help address this, due to his athletic profile and advanced skills as a pass catcher — something the team desperately needs given the current composition of the roster. Add some good route running and solid ball skills, and you get a player who could have a positive impact on New England’s passing attack early on in his tenure.
Why not the Patriots? Bryant enters the draft as a second-tier tight end behind consensus top-two options Cole Kmet and Adam Trautman — players whose size is more prototypical compared to what New England is looking for, and who appear to be better suited to serve in the all-around blocking/receiving role at the next level. The team might therefore prefer to go after one of them instead of Bryant, despite his solid upside as a pass catcher.
Verdict: While somewhat undersized by the Patriots’ standards and very raw as a blocker, adding Bryant to the equation in one of the middle rounds would make the team’s tight end group a better one in an instant. He is a better pass catcher than both Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo, after all, and would add a dynamic receiving option to an offense that lacked just that in 2019 at both the tight end and wide receiver spots.