When the 2020 NFL draft ended, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s list of best available players had two Huskies at the top.
1. Salvon Ahmed RB — Washington
2. Hunter Bryant TE — Washington
To make matters worse, both players were true juniors from the Seattle area who could have — should have — returned for their senior seasons. They could have helped the Huskies push for a Pac-12 title, while simultaneously improving their draft stock and addressing their flaws. They could have provided leadership and production in a pro-style offense uniquely suited to their strengths.
Instead, they signed as undrafted free agents — Ahmed with San Francisco, and Bryant with Detroit. In an unprecedented offseason, with little or no guaranteed money, they’ll have to overcome the odds to continue their careers.
In both cases, it was an unfortunate avalanche of could haves and should haves.
And more than that, it’s just a shame.
Of course, that’s not to say this is all their fault. Ahmed and Bryant made what they thought were the best decisions for their future. Whether they received poor advice, unreliable information or just a bevy of bad breaks, they didn’t declare early to go undrafted. That much is beyond dispute.
Plus, they could never have predicted that their pro days would be canceled as a response to the COVID-19 crisis. And, after disappointing 40-yard-dashes at the NFL Combine — 4.62 seconds for Ahmed, and 4.74 for Bryant — both needed another opportunity to impress pro scouts.
“Ahmed is one of those players that really lost out when the University of Washington pro day was canceled, like so many others due to the pandemic,” draft analyst Rob Rang told The Times last week. “4.6s for a guy that looks like he runs 4.3s, 4.4s on the field is a very alarming number.”
So alarming that Ahmed — who ran a laser-timed 4.32-second 40-yard dash prior to his senior season at Juanita High School in 2016 — slipped out of the draft entirely.
So, what could Ahmed and Bryant have accomplished with another season in Seattle? It’s worth remembering that first-year offensive coordinator John Donovan’s pro-style system figures to heavily feature both the running back and tight end this fall.
In his first season as UW’s starter, Ahmed led the Huskies with 1,020 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, to go along with 5.4 yards per carry, in 2019. The 5-foot-11, 197-pounder produced four 100-yard rushing performances as well.
As for Bryant, the former Eastside Catholic standout played his first full regular season at Washington — and he didn’t disappoint. In 12 games, the 6-2, 248-pound playmaker caught 52 passes (second-most by a tight end in school history) for 825 yards and three touchdowns; his 15.9 yards per reception ranked fifth among tight ends nationwide.
And, sure, a senior season wouldn’t have served as a miracle cure. It wouldn’t have made Bryant suddenly three inches taller, or wiped away the left knee injuries that cost him 13 combined games in 2017 and 2018. It also wouldn’t change the fact that running backs are no longer considered first-round priorities in the pros.
And, with a new offensive coordinator, system and starting quarterback in Seattle, both Ahmed and Bryant would have risked further injuries without any guarantee of sustained success.
But here’s the other side of the argument. Ahmed could have used his senior season to further develop as both a receiver and pass-protector — two coveted attributes in the modern NFL. Despite his superb quickness and straight-line speed, the Kirkland product caught just 13 passes last season — and 50 in his career. Meanwhile, LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire — the first running back off the board on Thursday, at No. 32 overall — registered 55 catches in the 2019 season alone.
Bryant, likewise, has never been considered a complete tight end. He’s a dynamic pass-catcher in open space, but there’s certainly room for substantial improvement as an in-line blocker. He also struggled with occasional concentration drops, and that’s an area that could certainly be addressed in his senior season.
It’s possible, of course, that Bryant’s medical reports and size restrictions ultimately submarined his draft stock — that his worrisome left knee was simply too much to overcome. But Bryant was still healthy enough to produce one of the most prolific seasons at his position in program history. He didn’t play like damaged goods. He was named a first-team All-American by The Athletic and a Mackey Award finalist.
So, when 12 other tight ends were taken this week, why was Bryant left out?
In the wake of a disappointing NFL draft, there are more confounding questions than answers. Besides Ahmed and Bryant, it’s worth wondering whether redshirt junior quarterback Jacob Eason — who slipped to the fourth round, before being scooped up by the Indianapolis Colts — would have benefited from a senior season. The return of Eason, Ahmed and Bryant, not to mention one of the country’s more promising defenses, might have made the Huskies instant favorites in the Pac-12 this fall.
Instead, it’s another frustrating Husky hypothetical.
And, to be clear, none of this means that Ahmed and Bryant can’t still be successful — that they won’t defy the odds, make a roster and carve out a career in the NFL. Sure, in retrospect, they should have returned for their senior seasons.
But the best all-too-available players can still become established pros.