It started with Tony Gonzalez and continued more recently with Antonio Gates. Athletically gifted big men not tall enough or quick enough to achieve their goals in basketball, hoping to put their skills to use on the football field. As arguably the top two tight ends in the NFL, Gates and Gonzalez have proved that the incredible athleticism and explosive abilities needed to play basketball, can directly translate to success on the football field.
Their achievements have NFL teams continuously searching for the next former hoops player looking to make the switch.
Last year, Miami Hurricanes TE Jimmy Graham was the player of choice. After exhausting his eligibility in basketball, Graham decided to give football a shot. He played sparingly in his one season, catching seventeen passes for 213 yards and 5 TDs. He impressed scouts with incredible athleticism for his 6’6” frame, posting a 4.56 40-yard dash, a 38.5” vertical and a 10’ broad jump at the 2010 combine.
Despite his limited experience, the Saints saw enough to grab him in the 3rd round. They also saw enough potential to let starting TE Jeremy Shockey go, after Graham posted 31 receptions 356 yards and 5 TDs during a rookie campaign in which he got more comfortable as the season progressed. He’s now the #1 TE on a Super Bowl contender only two years after making the switch back to football.
With the success of Graham, the question becomes, who’s next? Two obvious choices come to mind: Jordan Cameron of USC and Julius Thomas of Portland State.
Julius Thomas is the more prolific football player of the two. Appearing in 11 games for Portland State, he erupted with 29 catches for 453 yards and 2 TDs, including 4 catches for 48 yards at Oregon. It was made all the more impressive by the fact that Thomas hadn’t played organized football in over six years and turned down international basketball contracts to return to Portland State and make a run at the NFL.
At 6’4” 246 pounds, he doesn’t have Jordan Cameron or Jimmy Graham’s height but showed the same type of athleticism in drills at the combine, finishing top 5 in the vertical. Similarly to both Graham and Cameron, he can afford to get stronger in his run blocking. The really difference arises in positional drills. While both Graham and Cameron have a tendency to round off routes, they displayed reliable hands leading up to the draft. Thomas, although he has impressive length, also has the tendency to drop the easy pass. It’s a trait that, when added with his lack of experience and need to bulk up, makes it unlikely for him to have the same type of impact that Graham had early on.
Jordan Cameron is the more known entity, especially after Blake Griffin started hyping up the California native. Originally recruited by BYU to play basketball, the 6’5” Cameron, red-shirted his freshman year before transferring to USC. With the Trojans, he served as a reserve WR and saw very limited time on the basketball court. Even after devoting himself entirely to football, it wasn’t until he switched to TE before the 2010 season, that Cameron finally saw the field. And even then, he only totaled 16 receptions for 126 yards and one TD.
However, even though he lacks Jimmy Graham’s on-field performance, Cameron more than matches the former Hurricane in explosion. He stole the show at this years combine, posting a 4.59 40-yard dash, 23 reps in the bench press, a 37.5” vertical, a 9’11” broad jump and finished first among TEs in the three cone, twenty yard shuttle and sixty yard shuttle.
Like Graham, Cameron is raw as a route runner, even though he has more years of collegiate practice experience under his belt. Both had trouble rounding off routes and consistently finding soft spots in zone defense. However, they both match strong physical skills with sure hands and a large catch radius.
After Graham’s strong performance last year, expect Jordan Cameron and Julius Thomas to go higher than many expect, despite still being a work in progress. It’s not too often you may stumble on the next Antonio Gates.