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Hoops to football natural for tight ends

Posted Aug 16, 2013

College basketball courts have become a recruiting hotbed for NFL offensive coaches.

NFL teams are constantly searching for the next difference-making player.

And, over the last 15 years, they’ve found impactful tight ends in an unlikely spot: the basketball court.

“It’s the body type, No. 1, and No. 2, they’re used to posting people up, working inside, and working in tight areas,” Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “That’s really what the tight end does on a lot of the routes and plays he does when he’s working against safeties and linebackers.

“It’s such a physical game, and you can throw the ball over the middle to the wide receivers, but at some point, it’s going to take a toll. I think if you have a 250-pound man that’s a big, physical guy and still has the athleticism, they’re going to hold up a lot longer doing that stuff over the middle.”

Starting with Tony Gonzalez, a dual-sport athlete at the University of California-Berkeley, and continuing with Antonio Gates, an All-American basketball player at Kent State University, and more recently, with former University of Miami standout, Jimmy Graham, one-time hoopsters have made a successful transition to the NFL.

Gonzalez is a 10-time All-Pro, 13-time Pro Bowler and a member of the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team. He was the first tight end ever to catch 1,000 career passes, has gained 14,268 yards, caught 103 touchdowns, and owns 18 NFL records.

In 10 years with the San Diego Chargers, Gates has turned 642 receptions into 8,321 yards and 83 touchdown catches. Graham, now in his third year with the New Orleans Saints, was a Pro Bowler and All-Pro selection in 2011 after catching 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns.

“Things go in cycles, and there was a time when every team had an outstanding tight end,” Turner said. “I go back and think about Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow in the ‘80s. I was fortunate to be with some real good tight ends, Jay Novacek in Dallas. If you have that guy, you utilize him.

“What people are doing right now with the tight ends, they’re utilizing them the way the Coryell offense and how Ozzie Newsome was utilized here. It went through different cycles for a number of years where people went into more of the four wide and protections became an issue, so you go back to having tight ends that can be receivers and block. The thing that has really come on over the last few years is the players with a basketball background that have become outstanding tight ends in the passing game.”

Turner had a front-row seat to watching Gates’ production on the field, first, as an opponent, then, his coach.

As head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2004 and 2005, Turner watched as Gates went from undrafted free agent to Pro Bowler. Then, in 2007, the two teamed together. Over the next six years, Gates went to five straight Pro Bowls (2007-2011), and caught at least seven touchdowns in each of those seasons.

“It was just the combination of speed and quickness and that great size,” Turner said of Gates’ effectiveness. “He could not only beat you running a route like a wide receiver, but then, when you had him covered, he could still make the play. It was just fun to be around him, and let him grow as a player and watch him continue to develop his skills. He’s a very unique guy because he’s got unbelievable short-area quickness, and he still has speed for a 250-pound man.”

Now, in his first year with the Browns, Turner is working with another former basketball player turned tight end, Jordan Cameron, who has 26 career receptions for 259 yards and a five-yard touchdown catch in last season’s 20-14 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Turner said that Cameron is “embracing” the change in offensive philosophy and “understands the things” the coaches are teaching him, and that showed when he caught three passes, two of which went for touchdowns, in the Browns’ 24-6 preseason win over the Detroit Lions Thursday.

“The thing that Jordan has is outstanding straight-line speed,” Turner said. “He made the play the other night in the game where he ran away from everybody crossing the field. We’re working hard to get him to be a complete tight end. We’re working on his change of direction. We’re working on him understanding how he can use his quickness and his size to hold off and beat defensive players. He’s a guy with a big upside and we’re working hard to develop that.

“The thing that’s changed with tight ends is the elite guys, whether it’s the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s or now, they can stretch the field from inside out. Plus, they give you that high-percentage guy underneath. I think Jordan has the abilities to stretch the field, run up the field for us and give us a receiving threat up the field. He’s working hard on doing the things underneath.”