FOXBORO, Mass. — Before Thursday, Myles Bryant had never returned a punt in an NFL game, regular season or preseason. Never did it in college, either.
But the Patriots defensive back looked like a natural in that role in New England’s preseason opener against the New York Giants, and Bill Belichick took notice.
One day after Bryant returned one punt for 30 yards and another for 16 yards in the Patriots’ 23-21 loss at Gillette Stadium, Belichick raved about his performance in that unfamiliar position, calling him a model for other young players to follow.
“Gunner (Olszewski) returned punts for the last three years, so he took a lot of reps and a lot of snaps back there,” the Patriots head coach said in his virtual Friday morning news conference. “But Myles has been doing it during the spring, the summer. He’s shown a good ability to track and catch the ball. We know Myles has good quickness, and we know he’s a good decision-maker, which is a lot in that position. And he made a couple nice plays (Thursday) night.
“He’s worked hard for that opportunity, earned it and then did something with it — all really encouraging things. But that’s kind of typical of Myles. That’s kind of the way he is and the kid he is. He’s a very diligent, hard-working kid who always gives you his best effort. He’s a smart, instinctive football player in a lot of different roles. He’s had a lot of different roles for us defensively and grown into those. It wasn’t like he did all of those two weeks into (his first) training camp, but he’s evolved into a very versatile player for us on defense and in the kicking game.”
That’s high praise for a player who endured some high-profile struggles late last season — particularly against Buffalo Bills speedster Isaiah McKenzie — and hasn’t been viewed as a lock to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster.
One of New England’s smallest players at 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, Bryant primarily plays slot cornerback but also has seen action at free safety, strong safety, wide corner and even dime linebacker since joining the Patriots as an undrafted rookie in 2020. This spring, he added punt returning to his repertoire, repping there since the start of OTAs. He’s also returned kicks in practice.
Bryant said the last time he’d done either was in 2015, his senior year at Loyola (Calif.) High School. Troy Brown, the legendary wide receiver/punt returner who now coaches both positions for the Patriots, has been showing him the ropes.
“I did a little bit of (returning) during OTAs, just catching it and learning,” Bryant said after Thursday’s game. “We have a great coach — a guy named Troy Brown. You guys might have heard of him. He’s taught me everything I know about it so far, and I’m looking forward to learning a lot more. … Of course he showed us clips (of him). He puts his own highlight reel on, rightfully so.”
Both of Bryant’s returns against the Giants sparked exuberant celebrations on the Patriots’ sideline, with teammates mobbing him after each runback.
“That’s a guy who’s done everything he’s been asked to do since he got here,” special teams captain Matthew Slater told NESN.com after the game. “The road that he traveled to get here, being undrafted, having to scrap and claw — we were all really excited to see him (return punts) in the game. He’s shown that he’s had the ability in practice, and for him to actually have that hard work come to fruition was fantastic.”
Bryant also played the first three defensive series Thursday night, manning the slot between outside cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Malcolm Butler. The Patriots rested most of their starters for their exhibition opener, and the fact rookie Marcus Jones sat while Bryant played could illustrate their current standing on the depth chart.
Jones, a third-round rookie who’s guaranteed a roster spot, seems to be Bryant’s most direct competitor, as he also is a versatile slot/safety hybrid who was a prolific return man in college. The Patriots could ultimately decide, come cutdown day, that carrying both on the roster would be redundant and unnecessary, especially with Jones already seeing first-team slot reps in practice.
But Belichick’s affinity for Bryant could be enough to secure his spot on the team. The coach clearly likes what he’s seen from the undersized 24-year-old.
“He took advantage of an opportunity (Thursday) night, and that’s something that all young players can (learn from),” Belichick said. “We’ll point it out, but it’s obvious: You get an opportunity to do something, and you take advantage of it.”
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