Jadeveon Clowney, Greg Robinson among rookies who will (or should) switch positions
Before he was a great offensive tackle, Joe Thomas was a blocking tight end and defensive end for a while at Wisconsin. Michael Robinson, who won a Super Bowl at fullback for the Seahawks, was a quarterback at Penn State. Josh Cribbs, one of the best return men of the last decade, was a quarterback at Kent State -- as was Julian Edelman of the Patriots, now a receiver. Kyle Long, who played very well at guard for the Bears in his rookie season of 2013, played offensive tackle and defensive end at two schools.
Players switch positions pretty frequently when they hit the NFL, as the superior quality of the players and the increasing importance of specialization makes the thought process behind positional specificity more urgent than ever. But as former Cowboys personnel man Gil Brandt has said, it's something as old as the NFL itself.
"When you move a player, what you're looking for is a prospect who has one or two redeeming skills or qualities that lead you to believe he's got potential at another position," Brandt wrote last November. "For [safety-to-right tackle Rayfield] Wright, it was those extremely long arms. For [end to Hall of Fame linebacker Sam] Huff, it was his natural football instincts. For many others, it's their incredible speed. Something about him has got to stand out and convince you he's worth developing."
Some of the rookies listed below have already been told by their teams they'll be switching positions, while others may eventually find better and longer-lasting homes over time in new spots.
Jadeveon Clowney, Texans -- Defensive end to outside linebacker
While some remain concerned about Clowney's ability to move to an outside linebacker position in Romeo Crennel's defense, the Texans are not. As we detailed this week, the 2014 No. 1 pick can look to a number of recent converts for schematic guidance, including Washington pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan and Kansas City's Justin Houston. Clowney needs to work on his hand and foot moves and develop new ways to get past better and more practiced blockers than he faced at South Carolina, but he has all the athletic potential to make that switch.
Greg Robinson, Rams -- Offensive tackle to offensive guard
Robinson was a mauling left tackle for the Auburn Tigers and he may play the same position over time for the Rams, who picked him with the second overall selection. But head coach Jeff Fisher has said that Robinson might start his NFL career at guard, which might actually be his ideal position. Robinson absolutely trucks defenders when he's run-blocking -- that's where he's a physical marvel. But there are times when he has trouble keeping his feet under him in pass protection and he's not always adept in the second level. The Rams have an iffy offensive line at this point, and O-line coach Paul Boudreau would be best served putting his most talented player where he can pay the most immediate dividends.
Jack Mewhort, Colts -- Offensive tackle to offensive guard
Mewhort played in 49 games for Ohio State, lining up at both guard positions, but he made his primary name as a left tackle. Still, the Colts will try him at both guard positions first, which may be more about need than anything else. Last year, Hugh Thornton and Mike McGlynn, Indy's primary guards, gave up a total of 11 sacks, 27 quarterback hits and 42 quarterback hurries. General manager Ryan Grigson is certainly on board with the former Buckeyes' team captain.
"He's big, he's tough and he's smart. He loves football, fits our culture, fits our environment," Grigson recently said. "He'll be great in our locker room. What I like is he's got 'nasty.' He's tough. Extremely excited to have him on board."
Zack Martin, Cowboys -- Offensive tackle to offensive guard
Martin started 39 games for Notre Dame, all at tackle. But at the Senior Bowl, coaches wanted to see what he'd look like at guard -- and they were on to something. Martin could be a liability on the edge because he too frequently gives ground to speed rushers, especially those with inside counters. But he's tough, resilient and comes off the snap with a nasty smack and a low center of gravity. The Cowboys could put him at left guard between two other former first-round picks: left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick.
Dee Ford, Chiefs -- Defensive end to outside linebacker
The Chiefs totaled 47 sacks in 2013, but they had just six total quarterback takedowns in their six losses -- and that was with Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. So, Kansas City took Ford in the first round, hoping his 10.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss will transfer to the NFL. Though he was a defensive end at Auburn, Ford is certainly a better option at outside linebacker. At 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, he was physically overwhelmed at times when asked to rush inside. Given more free space outside, he could be a dynamic third option in Bob Sutton's defense.
Ra'Shede Hageman, Falcons -- Defensive tackle to defensive end
The Falcons have had issues with their pass rush over the last few seasons and the idea now is to get bigger and more powerful along their defensive line. Having played tackle at Minnesota, the 6-6, 310-pound Hageman perfectly fits the new paradigm of the multi-dimensional end in hybrid fronts. The Falcons coaches saw Hageman dominate all week at the Senior Bowl, and though he's a bit raw (the only reason for his second-round status), he has as much physical potential as any other defender in this class.
Timmy Jernigan, Ravens -- Nose tackle to three-tech tackle
Baltimore's defensive linemen move around a lot, though Jernigan probably projects best as a three-technique tackle in a four-man NFL front -- especially with nose tackle Haloti Ngata already patrolling the primary position Jernigan played at Florida State. At 302 pounds, he'll unlikely spend much time on the inside -- unless they go with a one-gap, five-man front, where a lighter nose tackle would work, similar to what the Cowboys and Texans have used in recent years -- though the second-rounder already seems aware that he'll have to fill multiple roles.
"The guys move around a lot, that’s what I’ve seen," Jernigan said at his first minicamp. "Each defensive lineman plays a little bit of the nose [guard], the shade [tackle] and the three-[technique] -- a little bit of everything. So, that’s my biggest thing is being able to learn the playbook as a defensive lineman, not just as a nose guard or a defensive tackle.”
Pierre Desir, Browns -- Outside cornerback to slot cornerback
The Browns gave Joe Haden a five-year, $68 million contract extension on May 13, and selected Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert with the eighth overall pick in the draft. So, when they circled back and selected Desir in the fourth round, it opened up potential options for the talented and underrated small-school cornerback. Desir cut his teeth at Division II Lindenwood, but he showed up at the Shrine Game and Senior Bowl ready to prove that he could run with the best receivers the college game had to offer. At 6-1 and 198 pounds, but employing a very physical style, Desir might be best used as a slot cornerback -- especially against teams that feature their primary receivers in the slot more often. That's a definite NFL trend, and teams should adjust accordingly.
De'Anthony Thomas, Chiefs -- Offensive weapon to slot cornerback
Thomas was a do-it-all guy for the Oregon Ducks, gaining more than 3,000 yards from scrimmage in three seasons as a running back, receiver and returner. He'll be a satellite player in Andy Reid's offense and on special teams, but there are some who think that the "Black Mamba" could also be a credible slot cornerback, especially against speed slot receivers.
"He came out of high school and a lot of people recruited him as a defensive back," Charles Davis of the NFL Network recently said of Thomas, who played safety and corner at Crenshaw High in L.A. "He could convert to a slot corner. With his quickness and ability, that would be a move that could be beneficial to him. He might end up having a longer career [there]."
Brock Vereen, Bears -- Safety to slot cornerback
The Bears ostensibly took Vereen, the younger brother of Patriots running back Shane Vereen, to fit in at a safety spot. And given the team's woes at both safety positions last season, it would make sense. But based on the tape it would also make sense to give him reps in the slot. Of all the safeties in this draft class, he may have the most impressive ability to stick and stay with receivers, no matter how complex the routes get. Vereen has tremendous agility and change-of-direction skills and isn’t a pure thumper. Hybrid defenders have become more valuable than ever, and Vereen lines up very nicely in that category.
Eric Pinkins, Seahawks -- Safety to outside cornerback
This may be the most interesting conversion of all because the Seahawks think Pinkins, who played safety at San Diego State, could eventually become a lockdown corner in the team's physical press style. They've had success with conversions before -- most notably Richard Sherman, who was once a receiver at Stanford -- but Sherman also played his current position in college. Pinkins has not, and as he showed in rookie minicamp when fellow first-year player Paul Richardson ran right by him on a deep route, the transition can be a bit rocky. "He’s a remarkable athlete, as long and tall as he is, and the speed that he has, and he has a receiver background," Pete Carroll said of Pinkins at the end of the draft. "So he has a lot of good qualities that we like. The fact that he has such great arm length and he’s almost 6-3 gives us a chance to see if we can find him a spot at corner first. He’s been a real physical guy. He played a lot on the slots, but covered a lot of man-to-man stuff on slot receivers. But it’s going to be a transition for him ... and we think he’s the perfect guy to give a shot at that."