May 31, 2023

Growing Into a Star Offensive Lineman for PU Football, Byrd Aiming to Make a Big Impact for the Denver Broncos

OH HENRY: Henry Byrd takes the field last fall in his senior season for the Princeton University football team. Byrd, a recent Princeton grad who emerged as a force on the offensive line for the Tigers, recently signed with the Denver Broncos of the NFL as an undrafted free agent. The 6’5, 310-pound Byrd, a First-Team All-Ivy League performer in 2021 and 2022, has already attended the first rookie mini-camp and is excited about the chance to fit in with the Broncos, who have a new head coach in Sean Payton, a previous Super Bowl winner. (Photo by Sideline Photos, provided courtesy of Princeton Athletics)

By Justin Feil

Henry Byrd bought several team hats to be prepared, but 10 minutes after going undrafted, it was the Denver Broncos hat that he wore proudly after signing as an undrafted free agent.

“Once I grabbed the right hat, the Broncos hat, that’s when it hit me — it’s real and I play in the NFL,” said recent Princeton University graduate Byrd, a native of Nashville, Tenn. “You kind of know it’s going to happen and it’s not a surprise by any means but that initial wave of emotion, it’s not something you can prepare for.”

Byrd returned the other hats as he embarked on his NFL career with Denver. The 6’5, 310-pound Byrd, who played tackle all four years at Princeton, has already attended the first rookie mini-camp and he is excited about the chance to fit in with the Broncos, who have a new head coach in Sean Payton, a previous Super Bowl winner with the New Orleans Saints.

“Position wise, I’m going to start off at guard there,” said Byrd, a First-Team All-Ivy League performer in 2021 and 2022. “I played tackle in college obviously. It was a big thing for me that they recognized my versatility. I’m going to take reps at center, I’m going to take reps at tackle. A big thing to me was getting a chance to prove myself at every position and get a chance to show my ability to play all five spots on the line. I feel like my biggest selling point is my versatility with all that. And scheme-wise, it’s a lot of zone scheming, pulling, moving out in space, really utilizing my athleticism is what that offense is known for. That’s a good fit for me too. It puts me in the best position to play with my strengths.”

Byrd had gotten good feedback from NFL teams about his chances to be invited to a training camp. He had enough interest that there was a possibility that he would have been drafted. He had family, Princeton roommate and fellow lineman Zack Zambrano, and some close family friends on hand to watch for his name to be called. That didn’t happen, but he already had a deal lined up with Denver.

“It wasn’t like I was worried that I wasn’t going to go anywhere or wasn’t going to get a shot,” said Byrd.  “I knew I was going to be a high priority free agent. So it did take a little of the pressure off.”

Princeton wide receiver Andrei Iosivas was selected in the draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. Another Tiger, Matthew Jester, like Byrd, signed as an undrafted free agent, with the Los Angeles Rams taking the linebacker. Byrd committed to the Broncos after the conclusion of the draft.

Signing the deal with the Broncos completed a five-year journey from the time that he was an undersized lineman coming to Princeton out of Ensworth School in Nashville. Byrd was a late bloomer, but turned heads at Princeton as he added 70 pounds and played as a three-year All-Ivy League performer.

“Henry started at the end of the 2018 season, which was an undefeated team,” said Princeton head coach Bob Surace. “He started the last game for us and played prior to that. He was very polished. He was just undersized. He’s worked really hard to put on 70 pounds in the five years. Henry also was Top 5 in that RAS (Relative Athletic Score) out of offensive linemen that tested this year for the draft. He is incredibly athletic. That piece of it — his athleticism — was what I wasn’t clearly getting the scouts to understand in the fall. They didn’t trust that he was going to test as well as he did.”

Byrd’s length isn’t quite that of some NFL tackles, and scouts wondered if he had the quickness and athleticism to play on the interior line. He alleviated those concerns with his standout test scores, and is looking forward to proving his versatility. He last played anything other than tackle since playing a little guard as a freshman in high school.

“I am really excited to play multiple positions,” said Byrd. “I like the idea of being versatile, and above all else, it just is more opportunity to get more reps and to impress more people. It just accelerates the learning. One of the things that helped me early on at Princeton was getting the opportunity to play both right and left tackle, essentially doubling my reps in practice that got me more tape and impressed the coaches. It also just gave me more opportunities to improve. Those extra plays are extra chances to get better. I am really excited about that.”

Byrd had been preparing for the NFL draft since the Princeton season ended. He handed in his thesis in December and defended it in January. He graduated after the first semester because he took time off time from school during the pandemic. That enabled him to prepare for Pro Days and workouts for NFL teams without worrying about his schoolwork like some fellow seniors.

“Matthew Jester was still working on his thesis,” said Byrd, a history major. “We roomed when we went to one of the local days together, and the night before the workout he’s trying to run regression models on his thesis. It was tough trying to do it in the season for me, and looking back on it, there was not going to be an easy time to do that but I got it out of the way and was able to fully focus on training for Pro Day and the pros.”

Surace has never had a doubt that Byrd should get a chance to play in the NFL. And once others have met him, Byrd has made them believers as well. He ended up having a lot of interest by the draft.

“I coached eight years with NFL linemen and I had no doubt this guy could play,” said Surace. “There’s an agent (Joe Linta of JL Sports Agency), who happened to be a Yale player from 35 years ago, who’s outstanding at getting under-the-radar guys. If he believes in them, they’ve made it every time. I worked with him when I was in the NFL. He will not sign a guy without testing them. He came down and saw Henry, and he said, ‘This guy is going to play 10 years in the league.’ Henry went from off the map to nearly getting drafted. There were some teams in the seventh round that told his agent, ‘There’s a good chance we’re going to draft him.’ And Henry winds up in Denver.”

Byrd was happy to have some say in where he ended up. He was able to speak to Denver’s offensive line coach and evaluate how he fit into their scheme.

“When it comes to the sixth or seventh round vs. high priority free agent, at a certain point you’re just rolling the dice,” said Byrd. “It was good I got to go to the right situation in Denver. It worked out. I don’t think any team that drafted me would have been a bad situation, that’s why they were interested in me, but getting that little bit of extra freedom and say, you get to go exactly where you think you have the best chance long-term.”

Byrd had his first chance to make an impression on the Broncos staff at the rookie mini-camp. He went into the camp with an attitude to do all that he could to show that he belongs at the professional level.

“After being established so long at Princeton, you’re going into a new situation,” said Byrd. “You have to look back at what made you successful in the past, what your strengths are and lean hard into those and attack your weaknesses. It’s a very short period. It’s three days. It’s three days non-stop where you have to just be giving it all for these three days. Nothing is guaranteed. That’s the thing about the NFL. Everyone is doing their best to win and your job is to prove that you’re the best piece available for that opportunity. You have to go out there and give it your all and pick up the offense as fast as you can and get in the books. It’s a lot of mental, a lot of physical stuff like that.”

Byrd has taken to heart advice that he received in the lead-up to camp. Some of it came from Ross Tucker, the former Princeton lineman who played seven years in the NFL before turning to a career in broadcasting.

“It’s funny how similar the career paths are that we’ve had, even to the point where he does media now and that’s what I want to do after I’m done playing,” said Byrd. “We have the same agent too. The big thing he was telling me was make the coaches be the one to pull you back, always go out there with unbelievable intensity every single play, make sure that you’re the guy they never have to be on for knowing the playbook, and if they tell you they want a certain technique, you’ve got to be working extra to make sure that you get that down, prove that you’re coachable, prove that you have the energy that they’re looking for, and go out and take every single opportunity that you can get. One of the big things that helped Ross early on in his career was his versatility. That’s why he stuck in the NFL for so long. He could do pretty much anything that anybody asked him.”

Surace believes that Byrd has the capability to play anywhere on the line. Even though he didn’t have to do that at Princeton, Byrd has every trait that would enable him to fit at any spot on the offensive line.

“He’s so smart,” said Surace. “It’s really hard to play offensive line as a freshman anywhere, but we were an undefeated team. We had all returning offensive linemen, and he got in the rotation and ended up starting at the end of the year. It takes a pretty rare and unique and intelligent player to be able to do that. The interior on the offensive line at the NFL level just requires a lot more quick decision and quick thinking and communication. Henry will be outstanding at that. At the NFL level, especially with more and more quarterbacks being a little shorter and more mobile, teams are looking at the bigger tackle types to play inside. I think he’s going to have a legit chance.”

Byrd feels well prepared by his experiences at Princeton. He points to the coaching and technique work that he did with the Tigers. He played for an offense that led the Ivy League in passing and scoring last fall. He’s shifting his focus to an even higher level now.

“It’s definitely going to be a jump in intensity,” said Byrd. “But people are like, the Ivy League is such a step down, but I don’t really feel like that. It’s going to be a jump for everybody, whether you were playing at Alabama or whether you were playing at Princeton. It’s how fast can you adjust to that curve.
I think Princeton did do a good job of preparing me for that, putting a lot on my plate with your time management — that’s a big thing in the pros — and being stretched in so many different directions as a college football player, it prepares you for that stress in the NFL.”

Byrd is not in uncharted territory as he tries to make an NFL roster. He is just the latest Princeton product to earn a shot at a professional football career. He is hoping to join a recent flurry of former Tigers who have landed in the NFL and shown the Ivy League can produce pro athletes.

“I definitely feel that we’ve had that caliber of player pretty much every single year while I’ve been there; it’s just that it takes a little bit of a push for more people to recognize it,” said Byrd. “For example, my rookie year we had John Lovett, who’s still in the NFL and going on to his fifth year. Jesper Horsted is still in the league and Steve Carlson just signed to another deal. No one was even bothering to look at Steve and he managed to make a nice career out of it. It just takes guys like that to get more and more people’s attention. And year after year, the more there are out of the Ivy League, maybe in five years, it’s going to be a lot more respected as a pro developmental league than people want to give it credit for now.”