With the way that NFL offenses have evolved in recent years, with specific regards to the tight end position, the process of finding players that fit the changing schemes has evolved as well. As teams get more creative with their play calls, they also must get more creative with how they find these new breed of tight ends. Which is exactly what the Jets have done with the signing of former basketball and Australian rugby player Hayden Smith.
Last night Jake Steinberg (aka @Steiny31) of www.thejetsblog.com first reported the Jets were, “on the verge of signing,” Smith to be a “tight end.” Today the signing has become official.
Tight end coach/guru Tim Brewster (@TimBrewster), who helped Antonio Gates make the transition from basketball to football, has been training with Smith and tweeted, “Hayden Smith has signed with the Jets! Really think this guys upside in the NFL is huge.” When Brewster was asked on Twitter how Smith is “football smart” with such limited football experience, Brewster tweeted, “Football makes sense to him. Understands concepts, a one-time learner. Smart with great work ethic = NFL player.”
It used to be tight ends were just an extra blocker. Sure there were always a few who could help in the passing game like, John Mackey, Mike Ditka and Kellen Winslow, but the majority of the others were just an extra offensive lineman. Then came Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez, whose success started convincing other teams to look for players like them.
The problem with that was, there weren’t very many football players built like that. Then one day someone realized one of the reasons Gonzalez made such a perfect tight end was because of his basketball background (played football and basketball at the University of California). An undersized center or power forward in basketball has the perfect build for what is needed from a tight end. Typically the undersized big guys love contact as they have to use their brute strength to create distance between them and their opponents to overcome the height discrepancy, which of course is exactly the mentality an NFL coach wants in their tight end, or any position for that matter.
As football fans you know the story of Antonio Gates. Gates played college basketball at Kent State and he was an excellent power forward in college, but much like when you hear NFL teams quibble over if a guy is a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 outside linebacker, Gates was hit with the dreaded “tweener” label. So he set up workouts with NFL teams and the Chargers immediately realized they found a freakishly talented athlete and signed him as an undrafted free agent and during his prime, when healthy, he was as dominant of a force at the tight end position in the passing game as we’ve ever seen.
Last year it was Jimmy Graham, another former basketball player who made the transition to the NFL with great success. Graham played four years of basketball at the University of Miami and even played a little tight end for the Hurricanes his senior year, but since the NFL world already knew the Antonio Gates story the Saints weren’t going to be able to wait for him as they drafted him in the third round (95th overall) last year.
Clearly the Jets have been doing some research of their own on this topic and they decided to take it even a step further. The Jets insist the Tebow signing was all about finding ways to be more creative on offense and the signing of Smith confirms their commitment to creativity.
According to an article on www.nationfootballpost.com, Smith is originally from Sydney Australia where he played basketball in high school and earned a scholarship to Metropolitan State in Denver. “After his college basketball career had ended, Smith took part in a club rugby match where he discovered that he was a natural for the game. Within a few weeks he caught the eye of Scott Johnson, the then coach for the USA Eagles, and was promptly selected to play for the USA. Smith was invited to England on a trial with Saracens. After playing rugby for only 18 weeks, Smith signed a contract with the Premiership team, where he continues to be a rising star. Smith has also showed himself to be a standout player for the USA in the recent Rugby World Cup tournament in New Zealand.”
At 6’6″ 265 lbs. the former front liner (rugby term/position) for Saracens, “has 9.2 percent body fat and has been timed in the 40-yard dash at 4.75 to 4.82 seconds. He’s got long arms and good lateral quickness, the kind of tools necessary to make the move from the pitch to the gridiron.” According to the National Football Post article. The article notes that some teams aren’t sure where he fits, tight end or maybe a 3-4 linebacker, but Jetsinsider can confirm the Jets intend to use him at tight end and after Smith has been training with Brewster that would surely be the wise move.
“The first thing I saw was a kid 6-6, 265 pounds,” Brewster told the National Football Post. “He’s no longer 6-6, 220. I was really amazed at a couple of things. First, his ability to assimilate all the information I was throwing at him. He gets it. Football makes sense to the kid. Second, his work ethic off the charts. He’s a way above average athlete for the position. I think the kid has an outstanding future in the National Football League.”
Having worked with both Gates and Smith, Brewster will rave about each of them, but he will also insist on telling you how different they are. Gates is extremely dangerous as a tight end catching the ball, but blocking? Not so much. And it’s not that the Jets couldn’t use another target in the passing game because they clearly could, but Dustin Keller and Jeff Cumberland are not blocking tight ends and that’s where they need immediate help.
“Different kind of guy,” Brewster told the National Football Post. “Gates is 6-2, 260 pounds. Just a different kind of guy. The thing about Hayden is he is going to be a true, three-down player in the National Football League. The tight end position now has become so down and distance specific. Your first and second down tight ends, your third down tight end and this kid at 6-6, 265 pounds, he’s going to do a great job blocking the line of scrimmage on run down situations and then he’s going to also have the ability to stretch the field and do some things in the passing game that are really unique. And he has outstanding hands.”
Much of the talk around Smith is about him being a rugby player, which is important because of the physicality the sport requires, but when transitioning to an NFL tight end it will be his experience as a power forward in basketball that he will rely on.
“The best tight ends, body type, athletic ability, the whole thing are power forwards in basketball,” Brewster said. “That’s what you want playing tight end. For this position you have to think outside the box, you have to think basketball, alternative sports. You can’t be afraid to experiment. They’re not all going to work. Every one of them is not going to be Antonio Gates. But when you’ve got a guy that has unique athletic ability and just because he hasn’t played football doesn’t mean he can’t. As a coach, I’ve got to go earn my money. A lot of coaches shy away from guys that haven’t played the game because it is an exhausting process. To me, that’s the exciting part. Taking a piece of clay like that, and I am going to tell you Hayden Smith is one beautiful piece of clay, just mold them into what you want him to be.”
So while much of the offseason talk has been about the Jets needing to add specific defenders to stop the Gronkowski’s and Graham’s of the league, which is something they do still need to figure out, the Jets might have just gone out and found one of their own athletically gifted nightmare of a matchup for opposing linebackers and defensive backs to deal with.
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