No matter how much information teams gather, they still have a hard time figuring out how a college player's skills will translate into the NFL. Every year the first round is loaded with busts, while gems fall to the draft's second day. In 2009 perhaps no prospect is harder to figure out than Rice tight end James Casey.
Casey finished second in the nation with 111 catches last season and is considered one of the top five tight end prospects in this year's draft. But it's not that simple. Casey doesn't fit well into the traditional mold that some NFL teams like. His résumé raises more questions than answers for his prospective employers:
• He's not a tight end in the traditional sense. He has little blocking experience.
• He would have likely played quarterback if he had returned to Rice for his junior season.
• He played seven positions in one game as a freshman.
• He will turn 25 in September.
• He played four years of minor league baseball.
• Rice didn't recruit him. He recruited them.
Teams don't seem to agree on which position the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Casey will ultimately play. Some have worked him out as a fullback, while others consider him an H-Back. He also frequently took direct snaps and ran with the ball at Rice, so he could be a Wildcat weapon in the NFL.
For an old-school offensive coach, Casey's oddities might be a deal-breaker. For a more open-minded staff, they may be his greatest strength. A closer look at Casey reveals a thoroughly unique prospect that could be hitting the NFL at exactly the right time.
No team throws the ball more than Rice, which helps explain Casey's 111 receptions for 1,329 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2008. Casey was too busy catching the ball to block in the Owls' spread offense. Turns out he's not alone. Most of the top tight end prospects in this year's draft class didn't block out of a three-point stance and won't necessarily have to do so at the next level.
"The spread offense in college makes it harder for the NFL to define what a kid may be at the next level," NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock says. "Tight end has been impacted as much or more than any other position. Outside of Oklahoma State's Brandon Petigrew, who's the No. 1 tight end in the country, none of the top prospects have shown they can block."
Casey falls into a group of catch-first tight ends that includes South Carolina's Jared Cook, Southern Miss' Shawn Nelson, Florida's Cornelius Ingram, Missouri's Chase Coffman and Wisconsin's Travis Beckham. They all project as "move" tight ends or H-backs, who can line up in various places in the offense to create mismatches. None of them came close to matching Casey's numbers at Rice.
"Casey might have the best ball skills of anyone at his position," Mayock says. "Some people catch the ball naturally. Other people fight it. He catches the ball very naturally. The real value of this kid is getting him lined up with linebackers and safeties in the pass game."
Casey was originally recruited to play linebacker, and then was moved to defensive end, quarterback and eventually tight end/H-back. Rice's coaching staff was surprised by his pass-catching ability, and revamped their offense to feature Casey in 2008.
"He's got the greatest hands I've ever seen," Rice coach David Bailiff says. "I can't tell you how many catches I've seen him make that he shouldn't have."
Casey ran a 4.74 40 at the combine and doesn't have the speed to be a downfield threat like the Colts' Dallas Clark, but he can make the necessary plays in a ball-control passing offense. Rice frequently lined Casey up in the slot and ran bubble screens and other short and intermediate plays to get the ball in his hands. With his sure hands he should help an offense move the chains even if he's not going to break off many long touchdowns.
"Running down the middle of the field into a cover two, catching the ball, having a safety hit you and still hold on to the ball," Casey says. "That may be what I do best."
The hardest thing to judge in any draft is character. It doesn't show up on game tape, it can't be measured with a stopwatch and it's not always easy to assess in an interview, especially when a player has been coached on what to say.
No one who meets Casey has any doubt about his character. His difficult past has drawn a lot of media attention after he burst on to the scene with an impressive workout at the NFL combine in February. Casey's mother died in a house fire when he was 16, leaving him with nothing but the clothes he was wearing and his backpack. He turned to athletics to get him out of a tough spot growing up outside of Fort Worth, Texas.
"Everything bad that has happened to me has led to another opportunity that has been incredible," Casey says. "When my mother died, I almost gave up on everything. But then I thought of her and I knew she wouldn't want to see me moping around. Since then, I've thrown myself into everything I do."
Casey was a two-sport star at Azle High. His football career was cut short by a knee injury, so he ended up focusing on baseball his senior year. He developed a 95-mph fastball and was a seventh-round draft pick by the White Sox in 2003. With no money, he had to sign a baseball contract and abandon any dreams of playing college football.
His career with the White Sox started off promising. Then the coaching staff started tinkering with his mechanics and he lost his control. "When it left my hand, I didn't know where it was going to go," Casey says. "It didn't get to the point where it would go over the backstop every time, but it got close to that."
Once again, adversity provided a new route to success for Casey. He had always carried a football around with him in the minors and wanted to continue his education. He contacted several programs in Texas, and received mostly walk-on offers after showing them a grainy tape from high school and some photos. Rice saw something other schools did not and offered him a scholarship.
"James Casey does not have bad days," Bailiff says. "He realizes what a blessing life is. What opportunities he's been given academically and athletically. As he gets out of bed, he's highly motivated to live his life to his fullest."
Casey quickly developed a reputation as a hard worker on and off the field. The coaching staff was always surprised by how early he arrived at the weight room and how late he left. Professors were surprised by seeing him showing up regularly a half hour before class to make sure he didn't miss anything.
Casey is an academic All-America who is already approaching the number of credits required to graduate. "Most people arrive at Rice and have trouble adjusting academically," says Rice safety Andrew Sendejo, who roomed with Casey for a semester. "He comes in here and takes a really heavy course load and gets a 4.0 his first semester."
Casey has few interests outside of football and his studies. He doesn't like to watch movies, because he feels like he should be doing something productive instead of just sitting there. He spends most of his free time with his wife, Kylie, and rarely socializes with teammates.
Sendejo described some of Casey's rituals at Rice: "Every night I'd come home and smell Folgers. It meant James was going to stay up late studying or finishing a paper. He would also work out at night. I'd be in the other room and hear heavy breathing and wonder to myself what was going on. James was in there doing pushups. And that's after we just did a huge bench press workout at the gym."
Casey hates being late and promises he'll be the first to show up at meetings in the NFL. A Tom Coughlin-like disciplinarian will have no luck collecting fines from Casey.
"For the most part the teams that have done well have been high character teams over the last six, seven eight years," Mayock says. "I've seen much more of an impact placed on character than I did before that. Casey should benefit from that."
One of the potential knocks on Casey is that he's 24. By the time he reaches his all-important second contract he could be 29. In a league that covets youth, that's scary for a potential first-day pick.
Casey didn't even think he'd reach the draft this quickly. He's technically a true sophomore, and could rewrite the record book as a receiver or quarterback at Rice. He wasn't on the NFL's radar entering the season and his success came as a surprise to many.
"Nobody knew anything about him," Bailiff says. "We thought he was going to come back so we didn't get his name out there. He was only 29 [course] hours away from graduating. Then it just hit a point with the number of receptions and his age."
Casey's age is also seen a plus by his supporters. He's likely to be the most mature rookie on any team he joins, and will likely avoid the pitfalls that distract other first-year players.
"Everything James does is for his family," Kylie says. "He didn't grow up with a lot and he's really dedicated to making things better for himself and those around him."
Casey's first pro payday with the White Sox gave him a bonus worth about $120,000. He'll likely earn a considerable amount more as a mid-round NFL pick, but he won't break the bank like a first-round pick, so teams can afford to overlook his age.
Casey's unusual background made him a celebrity at Rice and has turned him into a bit of a mythic figure in some NFL circles. He surprised a lot of scouts at his pro day when he finished off his workout by rocketing spirals all over the field in an unexpected passing drill.
"They call him the Natural because he can do anything," Green Bay Packers scout and former NFL running back Alonzo Highsmith says. "He can throw. He can catch. Anything he tries he can do. He could probably pick up cricket and be a star."
But just like Roy Hobbs, a lot of NFL teams still have doubts about his unusual path to the pros. One NFC scout says that Casey was too small for a tight end and wasn't sure what position he would play. Another scout says that he could definitely contribute, but he may be too slow to be a star.
Those close to Casey say any potential negatives won't stop him because he always finds a way to succeed.
"I have no doubt Casey will have a successful NFL career and then go on to be CEO of a major corporation," Bailiff says. "He's that kind of guy. He's going to out-work everybody and find a way to get it done."
The real mystery of Casey's draft status will unravel this weekend. If he goes in the fourth round or below, that means teams likely focused on his lack of blocking experience, age and timed speed. If he goes in the second round, they probably looked more at his receiving ability and character.
Either way, Casey is eager to start his NFL career. "It took me a long time to get here," he says. "I don't plan to let this opportunity slip away."