Every player at the combine has something to prove.
Some players were stars in college, who need to prove that they have the ability to translate to the pro game. Others use the combine to draw attention to themselves with impressive workouts.
Then there are other players who fight larger odds.
These players are the ones who are experiencing position changes.
If you follow football you have heard of these situations before and probably haven’t really sat down and thought about what that means. These players are going from playing a position they have played for many years and now suddenly are being asked to play a position they haven’t played for years, or oftentimes… ever. This is the equivalent of going to your first major interaction with a potential employer with years of experience in a particular field and then having to adjust by learning a whole new field just in time for the biggest interview of your life.
And this is all in one of the more “cutthroat” professions.
Every year quarterbacks, defensive lineman, linebackers and other athletes are asked to learn new positions for NFL teams who are looking for the next breakout, unexpected star. Quarterbacks, specifically, are evaluated on a ridiculous scale in the NFL, so the presence of athletic ability and the lack of accuracy or arm strength normally lead evaluators to question where/if they can play elsewhere.
Does it work?
Names like Antwaan Randle El, Reggie McNeal, Armanti Edwards, Brad Smith, Josh Cribbs and others have had moments of brilliance – if that for some – but have never been able to successfully breakout after making the transition to wide receiver. Former Steelers receiver Hines Ward made the transition, but the prospect of learning a new position just to get the opportunity to play in the NFL can be too much in some cases. I certainly don’t expect every player who changes positions to suddenly become a star, but the list of Hines Ward’s is pretty short.
For defensive players, the switch is a little more fluid. Sure, there are the players who struggle with a transition from defensive end to linebacker, especially if the end struggles in space, but the success rate appears to be much higher in those cases. Look at recent players such as Denver LB Von Miller, Pittsburgh LB LaMarr Woodley or Dallas LB DeMarcus Ware. Those are just a couple examples of where a talented college defensive end, with phenomenal pass rushing ability can make a smooth and successful transition into the 3-4 defense as the pass rushing linebacker.
This year there are players on both fronts who are faced with the prospect of changing positions or simply adapting to a new scheme. On defense the key guy is former LSU DE Barkevious Mingo, who has pass rushing ability, but currently lacks the size to play a traditional defensive end spot. There are countless others in that situation as well, but for the most part, those with a top-flight pass rushing ability should be able to make a name for themselves even in a slightly modified position.
The real intrigue for me comes in with the quarterbacks. Former Michigan QB Denard Robinson is making the transition from quarterback to receiver. Robinson had a decorated college career where he broke countless records for his running ability. “Shoelace” is known for great speed and an arm that is capable, but there is no way he is going to be able to transition into the NFL as a quarterback, so now he tries to make it as a wideout. Robinson struggled during Senior Bowl week with drops and some predictable struggles with the new position, but came on during the combine this week. He showed off solid hands, a 4.43 official 40-yard dash time and the athleticism across the board to make teams consider the developmental receiver. He also has been, and continues to, suffer from some nerve damage in his right arm and elbow specifically. This is carry over from an injury suffered during this past season; his senior year. He said at the combine he is still only 60% recovered from the injury and that decisions are still being made on whether he gets surgery or not. The nerve injury affected him during the Senior Bowl, but he has looked much better since, which is a good sign for the former quarterback. I think he can certainly make a splash on the NFL after he is drafted in the mid-rounds. He certainly has the athleticism, but going from quarterback to receiver isn’t as simple as making the defensive switch from end to rushing linebacker. He has his work cut out for him, but should get an opportunity at least as a returner until he adjusts to the position.
The other guy that is interesting to follow during this process is another high-profile quarterback in former Kansas State star, Collin Klein. If you haven’t heard of Klein, he was one of this past season’s major players in the Heisman race as he led his Wildcats to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl and an 11-2 (8-1 in Big 12) record. Similar to Robinson, most of Klein’s success came from running the ball and having a complimentary arm to go with it. As a quarterback, like Robinson, he is considered a bit of a “broken” prospect in that he has a very long, unorthodox release and doesn’t seem to possess the pinpoint precision or rocket arm strength, which would normally allow evaluators to overlook those flaws.
There are many out there – me included – who think Klein’s best bet of playing in the pros is to make a position change. Sure, I wrote above how it doesn’t work all that often, but the change is made because it provides the best opportunity for the player. Klein’s best opportunity is somewhere besides quarterback. In fact, Klein was asked to work out with the tight ends during the combine, but responded by saying he would only work with the quarterbacks. He said he would “pursue every door that [he] possibly can to play quarterback” and that until those doors close, he isn’t considering anything else.
It’s a little gutsy, but playing quarterback is his passion. Unfortunately for him, all I can think of, and all I hear about him, is that he has similar skills to Jets QB Tim Tebow, where the throwing ability isn’t there, but the powering running style is present. While that certainly isn’t working for Tebow at this moment, Klein is holding out hope.
19 players were asked at the combine to workout in multiple positions, but two of the most fascinating are two quarterbacks who shared the limelight in college and now must face the harsh realities of the NFL where people don’t think they can make it as a quarterback. While Robinson tries to make the difficult adjustment, Klein remains firm on his stance of sticking with his passion of being a signal caller. While they are very different and unique players and people, their experiences through the NFL draft process will be very interesting to watch as they try to pave their own way, their way.