Column: Former basketball players are making names for themselves in NFL

Darren Fells

Arizona Cardinals' Darren Fells scores touchdown on a catch while being defended by Detroit Lions’ Stephen Tulloch of the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Sunday.

(Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

Jon Gruden wouldn’t budge. His Tampa Bay Buccaneers were weeks removed from winning the Lombardi Trophy in early 2003, and one of his players was asking for a favor.

Cornerback Dwight Smith wanted his childhood friend to get a tryout with the Super Bowl champs, even though his pal had played basketball in college, not football.

No dice.

“I said, ‘What do you think this is, Dwight, the YMCA?’” recalled Gruden, who can laugh about the rejected request now, a dozen years later.


You see, that basketball buddy was Antonio Gates, a probable first-ballot Hall of Famer for the San Diego Chargers. With two visits to the end zone Monday night, Gates joined Tony Gonzalez as the only tight ends in NFL history with 100 touchdown catches.

“Gates caught his 50th touchdown pass against me in 2008, the year I got fired,” Gruden said. “When I talked to Dwight I said, ‘Hey, listen. Sorry, man.’”

What was once inconceivable — a college basketball player making the transition to the highest level of football — is now not so bizarre.

Arizona Cardinals tight end Darren Fells, who caught his second touchdown of the season last Sunday, was a 6-foot-7 forward at UC Irvine who hadn’t played football since his days at Fullerton High.


Quentin Rollins, a Green Bay defensive back who Sunday intercepted two passes and returned one for a touchdown, played point guard for four years at Miami (Ohio). He tacked on one season of football to his college basketball career.

Seattle tight end Jimmy Graham was a college basketball player at Miami (Fla.) with one season of Hurricanes football under his belt. Jacksonville’s Julius Thomas — who played four seasons for the Portland State basketball team and one for its football team — made his much-awaited debut for the Jaguars on Sunday after sitting out the first four games because of a hand injury. He caught 24 touchdown passes from Denver’s Peyton Manning the last two seasons.

“Every year leading up to the draft, I get anywhere from five to 10 names of basketball players from scouts, basketball players you’ve never heard of,” said Mike Mayock, draft expert for NFL Network.

“They get worked out very quietly because guys don’t want anybody to know. I get the whispers from scouts and GMs. ‘Hey, we’ve got a guy from wherever. He’s 6-6 and ran a 4.5[-second 40-yard dash].’ Very few of them pan out, but they’re out there.”

It’s a trend that appears to be on the uptick, in part because the rules designed to protect pass-catchers have made it easier for players to transition from the court to the field.

“They used to play basketball because some of them didn’t like getting hit,” said ESPN’s Gruden, “Monday Night Football” color analyst. “But now, since the rules have changed in the middle of the field, and people are looking for jump-ball artists in the red zone in passing situations, why not?

“I think a lot of guys are becoming big mismatch wide receivers, and I’m sure because they don’t have to pass protect, they don’t have to block at the point of attack on some of these old-fashioned power plays, they’re saying, ‘This ain’t a bad life. And, I can’t get whacked in the middle of the field... I don’t have to put the pads on two times a day like the old days, either.’”

Gonzalez isn’t a perfect fit in the category of basketball players turned football players, because he played both sports from childhood through college. He retired after the 2013 season and his 111 career touchdowns are an NFL record for tight ends and sixth overall for any position. He was an outstanding blocker, too, a rarity in an age of increasingly specialized players.


“Basketball mentality versus football mentality is vastly different,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not even close. You have to be tough to play football. You have to block people. You have to be a real grunt and try to find some joy in actually moving a man. Lot of people don’t like that. Hitting people with your head and all that, it’s not comfortable, because it’s a dogfight, an absolute wrestling match every time you block somebody.”

By comparison, the receiving stuff is easy, Gonzalez said. That’s the fun part, when those basketball skills are truly put to use.

“We’re tweeners, that’s what tight ends are,” he said. “We’re power forwards from college basketball who are used to using our bodies to get open. Because we’re not as tall as these 6-10 power forwards, the NBA-type guys, we learn to use our body. And now we’re going against people who are shorter than us, with us really knowing how to use our body and our strength for boxing out, rebounding and getting open.

“It’s a mismatch every time. It’s like, ‘Now a guard is going to be on me? I’m just going to use my body so if you’re quicker and stronger — and most of the time you’re not — I’m just going to jump up and catch the ball over you anyway.”

Fells has always had the hands to play tight end, but it’s the blocking where he’s a work in progress. Cardinals Coach Bruce Arians said the third-year player has made remarkable strides in that area.

“If you’re a basketball player, you’re so used to non-contact and playing in space,” Arians said. “Then, when a guy is six inches away and he’s 290 and he’s going to hit you right in the mouth, it’s no fun.”

Rollins doesn’t mind that part. He’s the exception in this group because he plays on defense — something he learned in his one season of college football, because he was a running back in high school.

“First couple of days, everything was seeming so fast,” he said, referring to his spring football experience in his final year at Miami (Ohio). “I wasn’t used to receivers being able to get away with some of the things they’re able to get away with. That was the biggest adjustment.


“By the time spring ball ended, I felt very confident.”

It showed. Despite playing just one year, on an unfamiliar side of the ball, he had seven interceptions and was named the Mid-American Conference defensive player of the year. The Packers selected him in the second round of last spring’s draft.

Green Bay reaped big dividends against St. Louis on Sunday, as Rollins intercepted a pair of Nick Foles passes, running one back 45 yards for a touchdown.


Twitter: @LATimesfarmer


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