RENTON, WA - While playing football beyond the high school level normally would be a mandatory pre-requisite for anyone trying to make it in the NFL, there have been a few exceptions to the rule.
In particular, NFL teams have never been averse to the idea of bringing college or professional basketball players into the fold to try out as tight ends regardless of when they last played on the gridiron. Among those who successfully made the transition, future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates ranks 17th all-time in receptions, 29th in receiving yards, and seventh in receiving touchdowns despite not playing a down of college football at Kent State.
More recently, the Colts unearthed a diamond in the rough by taking a flier on former VCU basketball player Mo Alie-Cox, who had not played organized football since his freshman year of high school. After bouncing on and off the active roster in his first two seasons, the 6-foot-5, 267-pound tight end caught 31 passes for 394 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a breakthrough 2020 campaign.
It shouldn't come as a surprise basketball players such as Gates and Alie-Cox historically have done well flipping sports despite their lack of football experience. Possessing prototypical size for an NFL tight end, they are outstanding athletes with superb hand/eye coordination, skills that translate well to the position.
Ironically, as they prepare to face off against Alie-Cox and the Colts in the season opener this weekend, the Seahawks have taken a similar leap of faith to give another former college basketball star a shot at making it in the league as a tight end. After revealing their initial 53-man roster, the team signed Mark Vital, who starred on Baylor's national title squad last season, to their practice squad.
Taking a similar path to the NFL to Alie-Cox, Vital last played organized football in eighth grade before shifting his focus solely to basketball. A four-star recruit out of Lake Charles, Louisiana, he committed to Baylor and became an immediate contributor, starting 18 games as a freshman. He capped off his stellar college career by earning back-to-back All-Big 12 Defensive Team selections and was named a finalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award in 2020.
Despite his success in Waco, however, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Vital went undrafted in large part due to his lack of height. He signed with the Portland Trail Blazers as a free agent, appearing in limited game action with the team during the NBA Summer League and averaging 1.3 points and 4.0 rebounds per game.
After not showing any interest in giving football a chance in the past, Vital changed his tune when several teams reached out to inquire about working him out as a tight end, including the Cowboys and Seahawks.
“I was never going to leave basketball just to leave basketball. I had a plan, but I had to make sure that the plan was right,” Vital told Brad Renard of KPCL-TV. “I’m leaving basketball with things on the table. I had exhibit 10s, two-ways and overseas deals. For me to leave that, I actually had to have something in football.”
That something appears to be in Seattle, as coach Pete Carroll and his staff were enamored by Vital's physical tools, including soft hands and an enticing athletic profile, as well as his mental makeup. While NBA teams may have viewed him as a tweener, he looks the part of an NFL tight end.
“It’s really his competitiveness, just his talent athletically," Carroll said after Monday's practice. "He’s an extremely ferocious competitor. He’s got natural talent as far as catching the ball and his hand/eye stuff is excellent. Catching range is excellent."
Taking a chance on a basketball player as a tight end isn't a new experiment for Carroll and the Seahawks. Back in 2013, they signed former professional player Darren Fells, and while he ultimately didn't make the team, he's now in his eighth NFL season and has caught 123 passes for 1,483 yards and 21 touchdowns during stints with the Cardinals, Browns, and Texans.
Three years later, Seattle signed Western Kentucky tight end George Fant and promptly moved him to tackle, where the former Hilltoppers basketball standout would eventually develop into an NFL starter. He's currently entering his second season with the New York Jets and signed a three-year, $27.3 million contract in 2020.
Even during training camp last month, though only practiced for a few days, Seattle signed former Iowa State basketball standout Michael Jacobson.
Interestingly, according to Jake Heaps of ESPN 710, Vital worked out with Russell Wilson during the offseason, clearly making a strong impression on the quarterback. Keeping that connection in consideration, and the fact Carroll has always preferred multi-sport athletes, the Seahawks decided to take an extensive look at him as their latest hooper-to-tight end conversion project.
Now, the question is: starting from scratch while switching sports, will Vital be able to develop fast enough for Seattle to justify using one of its coveted practice squad spots to keep him?
"He’s got a million things to learn, and we thought we’d take a shot and see how it goes and see if he’s able to pick it up," Carroll added. "He’s going to have to pick things up quickly, otherwise he won’t catch up. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt right now. It’s as new as you can get."
As Alie-Cox and many others before him discovered, Vital will face a steep learning curve transitioning from grabbing rebounds on the hardwood to trying to block NFL defensive ends and linebackers on the gridiron. If he doesn't show signs of progress in quick fashion, Seattle won't have any issues moving on, as these types of conversions still have a minimal hit rate. But his natural athleticism, size, and catching ability should give him a fighting chance to stick around as he adapts to a new sport on the fly, especially if he already has a rapport developing with Wilson.
While Vital claims he has drawn comparisons to Gates from scouts and hopes to become the second-coming of the former Chargers legend, if his career takes a similar trajectory towards becoming a long-term contributor like Alie-Cox in time, Carroll and the Seahawks would be more than pleased with their investment.
“There’s other guys that have come along over the years. He’s a very special athlete and talent, let’s see if he can make sense of it and put some of the skills he brought from his other game and competition to work here.”