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O'HARA: Opportunity still in front of UDFAs despite obstacles of a virtual offseason

Detroit Lions tight end prospect Hunter Bryant is one of many rookies participating in offseason programs whose dream of playing in the NFL is alive after having one door closed in their face.

Bryant was not one of the 255 players – 12 of them tight ends – who were taken in the NFL's three-day draft.

It was a one-of-a-kind draft, with league and team officials operating under national stay-at-home quarantines mandated to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

What was common to previous drafts is that there were surprise picks – players drafted higher or lower than predicted – and surprises for players who were not drafted.

Bryant was one of the surprises for not being drafted.

He was considered a solid mid-round prospect by most credible analysts based on his production in a three-year career at the University of Washington.

For example, Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame scout Gil Brandt rated Bryant the No. 3 tight end and 86th prospect overall among players at all positions. ESPN rated Bryant 86th, and No. 5 among tight ends.

Bryant finished his career on an upward trend. He had 33 catches combined in his first two seasons at Washington while battling knee injuries. He closed out his career with the Huskies with 52 receptions, three TDs and an average of 15.9 yards per catch.

Bryant was asked at the Combine if he thinks about the draft.

"Yeah," he said. "I've been thinking about that my whole life. It's always been my dream to be here at the Combine, practicing for this draft."

In response to another question later, Bryant said he felt he could compete in the NFL.

"I feel I could play at this level," he said. "It's been my goal since I was five, to be honest."

That opportunity is still in front of Bryant. He is one of seven undrafted free agents who the Lions announced had agreed to terms after the draft and ultimately signed contracts.

The others: Safety Jeremiah Dinson of Auburn, safety Jalen Elliott of Notre Dame, safety Bobby Price of Norfolk State, fullback Luke Sellers of South Dakota State, punter Arryn Siposs of Auburn and long snapper Steve Wirtel of Iowa State.

This year's undrafted free agents face more daunting obstacles than in previous years, as head coach Matt Patricia outlined in his press conference earlier this year.

The nature of conducting a virtual offseason program – with no rookie minicamp, and players not allowed to work out at the Lions' Allen Park headquarters and training facility -- makes it more difficult to compete for roster spots.

The seven free agents signed by the Lions is less than they would in a normal year. And of the seven, only five are position players – three safeties, a fullback and a tight end.

The bottom line is there is more reliance on veterans this year which means fewer opportunities for undrafted free agents.

"It's unfortunate that that's the situation we're in," Patricia said. "It's also something from the standpoint of roster building that we really tried to take into account this year before we got into the draft and through free agency – knowing this wasn't going to be one of those years where you sign 20 (rookie) free agents after the draft and you bring them in for a minicamp for a weekend.

"Usually we find three or five guys that we want to keep around and work with for the rest of the spring, and them bring them back for training camp.

"We just knew we wouldn't have that opportunity, so you're trying to sign veterans, and you're trying to build your team around guys who have experience."

As general manager Bob Quinn has said often, the NFL is meritocracy to a large degree when it comes to making a roster. Players earn roster spots with performance.

There were two striking examples of that last year for players from different ends of the spectrum.

Beau Benzschawel of Wisconsin was a highly rated offensive lineman going into the 2019 season. For whatever reason, his performance declined, and he went undrafted. The Lions signed him as a priority free agent, and he made the 53-player roster in a backup role for the full 2019 season.

Linebacker Anthony Pittman of Wayne State in Detroit also was signed as a free agent. He went through the full offseason program and training camp.

He was released in the cut to 53, signed back to the practice squad, where he spent the full season until being promoted to the regular roster for the final game. He played 17 defensive snaps.

The bottom line: The dream doesn't necessarily die with the draft.

It begins.

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