It usually starts with a phone call or a tip. Other times it’s a set of numbers on a piece of paper.
Whatever it is, NFL teams have a way of finding former basketball players and turning them into productive football players. It can be risky and often leads to dead ends, but the success of Antonio Gates in San Diego and Jimmy Graham in New Orleans has made it impossible to ignore this avenue since it can lead to riches.
Since finding success with Graham, the Saints have kept an open eye to the possibility. There are plenty of gems hidden in plain sight on hardwood courts, and the organization is always looking for the next project who might pan out. The team tried out Xavier basketball player Sydney Coleman this offseason and recently signed Chris Manhertz, a former basketball player at Canisius College, who failed to stick with the Buffalo Bills.
The Saints aren’t necessarily heavily scouting every college basketball program, looking for players who fit a certain profile. Coach Sean Payton said his scouts have expanded their “search data” to include a wider scope. He compared it to NBA teams keeping an open eye toward European players, as well as ones in the United States.
So, when a player fits a certain athletic profile, the team might approach him about going through a tryout or a coach at one of those programs might tip a team off to a player. While many don’t work out, keeping an open mind has become more of a necessity since college football programs, due in part to the rise of spread offenses, are no longer producing many tight ends in the traditional mold.
“A lot of those players you’re not seeing at the college game necessarily in a traditional tight end formation,” Payton said. “So where is that athlete? I think teams are getting more comfortable at looking at those types of programs.”
Manhertz had never even thought about playing football. He never played it at any level. Didn’t watch it much. Didn’t even play the Madden video games. Then he got a call one day from the Bills about trying out. He was blown away at first, but realized his options as an athlete were limited. He decided to embrace the challenge.
He quickly realized how little he knew about the game. He went and worked with a coach. He had no idea how to get set or the proper techniques of the position. He didn’t understand what the coach was saying. He was speaking a foreign language. Pad level? None of it made sense.
Manhertz is starting to get there. He spent the summer with the Bills and signed with the Saints last week. No, it doesn’t feel natural yet and probably won’t for a while, but he’s settling in. Still, when he looks at where he is and how he got here, it’s a bit of a surprise.
“I really didn’t (think about playing football),” Manhertz said. “But once the opportunity presented itself, I was like, ‘Why not?’ ”
That’s the same conclusion football teams have come to. The scouting of college players has become so good that teams are willing to look anywhere and everywhere they can for talent. It’s not always about finding the guy with the best statistics in college. It’s always about finding the players who are capable of doing certain things.
It might seem odd to ask someone who has never played football to try to do so at the highest possible level, but it’s really not that outlandish. Basketball players are typically tall, have good size, can run and jump, and possess soft hands. All those skills are transferable to a football field, given the player can handle the physicality of the sport and pick up the mental side of things.
“I think it’s worth keeping in mind that one of the golden rules of scouting is that you’re drafting and scouting traits, not production,” ESPN analyst Field Yates, who previously worked as a scout for the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, said. “Just because a guy has 100 catches in college that doesn’t guarantee success in the NFL.”
The fact that New Orleans is always willing to look at players with different athletic backgrounds doesn’t surprise Yates. When he was in New England and Kansas City, he can remember players and agents sending in videos of players who had never played the game doing various athletic things.
Most of them were ignored. They didn’t have what it took. But others caught the scouts’ eyes and they’d take a closer look. Every now and then they’d pan out.
“People who showed athleticism and the traits necessary — it catches your attention,” Yates said. “The first step in scouting a guy in some ways can be does he meet the height-weight-speed requirement. Those are the most natural baselines.”
Manhertz, if nothing else, meets those requirements. He’s 6-foot-6, weighs 255 pounds and reportedly ran an unofficial 40-yard dash of 4.76 seconds. He still has a long way to go before hooking on with the team.
“If there’s a guy with one morsel of potential, teams will give him a chance,” Yates said.
That got Manhertz in the door. Now he has to find a way to stick.