As impressive as Aidan Hutchinson has been in his first NFL training camp, and as much as Charles Harris looks poised for a repeat of his breakout 2021 season, no one has been more consistently disruptive on the Detroit Lions‘ new-look defensive front this summer than Austin Bryant.
Bryant had one would-be sack, added a pressure that led to another sack and batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage Thursday, continuing an impressive run of playmaking through the first nine days of camp.
“I’ve come a long way,” Bryant told a small group of reporters Thursday. “I don’t think I’m a finished product yet, but I’ve come a long way from where I started and I’m so grateful to God and I’m grateful for the people that helped me become what I’m becoming and still in the process of being, so I’m just grateful for this process.”
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The Lions’ fourth-round pick out of Clemson in 2019, Bryant blossomed late last season in a rotational role after a tough start to his NFL career.
He played through a torn pectoral muscle while helping Clemson win the national championship in 2018, then spent time on injured reserve each of his first two seasons because of related injuries.
In 2019, he missed more time with a thigh injury, and last year he opened training camp on the physically unable to perform list.
Healthy this summer for the first time in his career, he spent the offseason training with his former Clemson teammates Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, he said, and came to camp rejuvenated by a new role and new competition.
The Lions re-signed Harris, coming off a career-high 7½-sack season, this spring and drafted Hutchinson with the No. 2 overall pick as they transitioned to an seven-man defensive front.
Bryant, who played as both a defensive end and rush linebacker in his first three seasons, said he welcomed the moves, though he declined to say how the additions motivated him.
“I’m glad we drafted Aidan. We needed a player like that,” Bryant said. “I love Charles. We need a player like that. If we want to be the defense we want to be, we can’t be selfish. And in my mind, I’m just as good as those guys, so I don’t see it as a competition. I see it as me contributing to this team, helping my teammates, feeding off my teammates.
“So I love those guys to death. They’re absolutely great players. But I believe I’m a great player, too. I think with all of us together, our entire D-line, we can form a great unit and be a Detroit defense that people haven’t seen before.”
Bryant showed promise in his first two NFL seasons. He blocked a punt in his first game of 2020 against the Minnesota Vikings and had seven tackles in a December loss to Tennessee later that year.
But last season, with more regular playing time as Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara battled inuries, Bryant emerged as a viable NFL pass rusher.
He finished the season with 4½ sacks and used that performance as a springboard.
“I’m glad I made those plays, but that’s last year,” Bryant said. “It’s a totally new year, so I got to earn it all over again and that’s what I’m most focused on right now.”
Hutchinson and Harris have taken most of the first-team reps in camp, but Bryant has done his part to secure a role for the fall.
He wore his helmet as he talked with reporters Thursday and had a determined look in his eye.
“I just don’t think I’ve seen my best self yet, so I’m in quest of my best self every day,” he said. “I’m in quest of the best Austin every day, the best Austin that can contribute to this team and help this city win.”
Asked if he’s shown the best him in camp so far, Bryant said there is more work still to be done.
“It’s a process,” he said. “Look, we’re just a week into camp, so nobody’s made the team yet, the roster’s not set, we haven’t even played a preseason game so I’m just taking it day by day and enjoying this process.”
Wide receiver Quintez Cephus missed his second straight practice after being helped off the field Tuesday by trainers. Cephus watched part of Thursday’s practice from the sideline. Defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike and center Ryan McCollum also did not practice Wednesday.