One of the biggest issues facing rookies entering the NFL is the speed of the game.
Players are bigger, faster, stronger. Offenses move at quicker paces. The playbooks are complex. But for undrafted rookie tight end Harold Spears, who is entering the NFL out of the University of New Hampshire, he’ll never have to worry about being caught off guard by a charged-up offense.
“No one moves as fast as Chip Kelly,” Spears said.
Even Spears doesn’t even know how fast Kelly operates, but he has a better idea than most players. Kelly served as New Hampshire’s offensive coordinator before moving on to Oregon in 2007. Spears never experienced Kelly first-hand, but the Philadelphia Eagles coach’s fingerprints are imprinted deeply in how the New Hampshire offense operates and prepares for games.
“It’s fast,” he said. “They move fast.”
Spears fits a similar profile to the man he’s hoping to replace on the roster. Like Jimmy Graham, Spears grew up as a basketball player and joked that he dreamed of being the next LeBron James.
He only took up football because the athletic director at Pennington High School in New Jersey told him that if he wanted to get into the school for his junior year, he had to put on pads. He had some offers to play basketball coming out of high school, but decided to stick with football since he had better scholarship options.
“I was forced to play and somehow that led to me playing in college,” Spears said. “That got me here.”
That push has worked out well for Spears. Even if he still has dreams of wearing No. 23 instead of No. 85, it hasn’t hurt his development as a football player.
Spears finished last season with 56 catches for 838 yards with four touchdowns. It was a big leap from his junior year, when he finished with 34 receptions for 478 yards with four TDs.
His transition to the NFL began last week at rookie minicamp. While he might have been prepared for the speed of the sessions, he admitted his head was spinning on the first day because of some of the complexity. By the second session, however, he began to grasp what was being asked of him and settled in.
“You don’t want to make a bad impression, especially the first time in front of all the coaches,” Spears said. “You want to make a good impression on everybody. At the end of the day, you just go out there and if you’re going to mess up, mess up at full speed.”
Spears must have made a good first impression. While some players trying out at the camp knocked off other undrafted rookies, Spears and fellow tight end Jack Tabb, a former North Carolina player, stuck on the roster despite competition from veteran players like Chase Coffman.
Now the duo will compete with one another for what might be the final roster spot at tight end behind Josh Hill and Ben Watson. But in some ways, they’ll be trying to hook on in different ways.
Spears, who is more of a receiving tight end, will be competing with Josh Hill at the flex tight end position, while Tabb is a Y tight end, like Watson. Payton said Tabb has the ability to play in line or off the ball. Though he didn’t block much in college, if asked, Spears is confident he can play in line.
One thing that could play to Spears’ benefit, if he proves to be the better receiving tight end, is that the Saints have three capable tackles on the roster in Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, and Zach Strief.
If one of those players does not start, Spears could be called upon to line up as a tight end and block at times.
It’s also possible that neither Spears nor Tabb make the roster. But for now, Payton said he’s confident in the young players and is not currently looking to bring in a veteran at the position.
“I was curious to see how these young guys were doing but that would not be something we would look at right now and say, ‘OK, after the dust has settled, we have to get a tight end,’ ” Payton said. “We’ll pay attention to that position and yet, the guys who are training right now we feel really good about.”
That’s a good position to be in as a former basketball player.