GM: In NFL, LeBron James Would Have Been 'Rob Gronkowski Before Rob Gronkowski'

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterJune 3, 2016

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 28:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers flexes after scoring and drawing a foul past Jon Leuer #30 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half of the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 28, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The general manager doesn't mince words: "LeBron James would have been the best tight end of all time. He would have been Rob Gronkowski before Rob Gronkowski. No one would be able to cover him. He would have set records every season." 

This is not a crazy concept. Mark Murphy, who played safety for the Green Bay Packers for more than a decade, told ESPN.com's Tim Graham in 2009, "I tell people that I rate my top receivers—coaching, playing or watching—as James Lofton, Jerry Rice, Steve Largent and LeBron James."

Murphy was the defensive coordinator at James' high school in Akron, Ohio, and he watched as James became an all-state receiver his sophomore and junior years.

"People laugh at me, but it's true," he said when elaborating on putting James in the same sentence as three of the best wideouts of all time. "The kid had everything you could want. I felt like that was one kid that could have gone from high school to the NFL and played."

Murphy isn't alone in that belief. Not even close.

As James plays in his sixth consecutive NBA Finals and continues to shape his legacy as one of the best players of all time, I wanted to look back at what might have been. What if James had decided to play football instead of basketball?

Layne Murdoch/Associated Press

When speaking to people around football about this alternate universe, the consensus is that James would have been a star. His body would have adapted to the rigors of football, and he would have been one of the revolutionary figures at either wide receiver or, more likely, tight end.

Now, that is quite a mouthful and will certainly set off the legion of James haters, who seem genetically predisposed to detect anything positive that's written about James and react to it as if he's Hans Gruber trying to take over Nakatomi Plaza.

What's clear, especially when talking to scouts who remember James from that time, is how much the NFL believed he could be a star in football—and how strong that belief remains now. They speak about James the way some people speak about unicorns.

No one knows for sure what could have been, but that's the fun part.

But first, we have to go back to when James was one of the most recruited high school football players in the country. He had narrowed his choices to Michigan, USC, Miami and Ohio State. Then came the decision to play basketball. Years ago, when asked if he missed football, James told the media: "Every day."

The switch to basketball caught some college coaches by surprise. Urban Meyer, then an assistant at Notre Dame, told reporters (via Bleacher Report's Ben Axelrod) that when he traveled to Akron to meet with James, he was met with laughter:

"Thank you very much, I'll consider it," Meyer recalled of James' response when the coach spoke to a group of reporters at Big Ten media days in 2012. "And his coach started laughing."

"I didn't know what he was laughing at, so we went down and sat in a room and he said, 'Do you know who that is?' and I said, 'No' and he said, 'LeBron James' and I said, 'Who's LeBron James?' and he said, 'He'll be the next Michael Jordan.' And I go, 'Come on.'"

What I didn't know was how closely some NFL teams were following James when he was in high school. The general manager said some franchises were monitoring James even as early as when he was a sophomore. By his junior season, when James had 61 catches for 1,245 yards and 16 touchdowns, some teams, the general manager explained, started to see James as not just a potential college star, but a potential star NFL player.

In high school, as Axelrod wrote, James was 6'7", weighed 230 pounds and could run a 4.5-second 40-yard dash. Now, James is an inch taller and 20 pounds heavier.

He's two inches taller and just 15 pounds lighter than Gronkowski—the best tight end in football now and maybe ever. James is more athletic and fluid than any tight end playing today (even the Gronk). He would outjump any defender. The rules today where defensive backs can barely touch offensive players while they're running routes would play right into James' hands.

COLUMBUS, OH - SEPTEMBER 28:  NBA player LeBron James watches from the sidelines as the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Wisconsin Badgers at Ohio Stadium on September 28, 2013 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Some will say the violence of football would have hampered his greatness. Others believe he had the potential to be the best two-sport athlete of all time—better even than Deion Sanders (baseball and football), Bo Jackson (same) or Jim Brown (only player in the lacrosse and NFL Halls of Fame).

But most I spoke to believe James not only would have been a perennial Pro Bowler, but that he also would have gone to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

One scout told me James would have been one of the 10 best football players of all time. Not tight ends. Football players. That's how highly some in the NFL thought of him. Think of him.

Maybe that's a bit much, but this is LeBron James we're talking about. The guy is a basketball freak, and maybe, just maybe, in another universe, he's an NFL freak.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.