- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2012

It was the night before Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe addressed his former coach’s Washington Redskins, and there was one particular player in need of some advice.

Niles Paul was making the switch from wide receiver to tight end, so he went out to dinner in the District with Sharpe, who starred under Mike Shanahan with the Denver Broncos.

“I picked his brain a little bit about some advice he had for me about my transition,” Paul said. “You’re not going to win every battle out there, because obviously there’s guys a lot bigger than me, he said. “The key is not letting that man touch the running back; that’s my job, to protect the running back and the quarterback. And he said being a smaller tight end, I can’t get in there and try to tussle up with those guys. I can’t be in there like a pinball in a pinball machine.”

Paul welcomed the transition to tight end as a way of contributing to the offense, though the 23-year-old still has plenty to learn. Almost everything is an adjustment.

He appears to be catching on: Paul caught four passes for 25 yards and a touchdown in the Redskins’ 33-31 loss at Chicago on Saturday. He had one reception for 11 yards in the exhibition opener at Buffalo.

“Niles is coming along quickly. He’s going to be a great player. I think there’s no doubt about that,” veteran tight end Chris Cooley said. “You just see his ability as an athlete and his want-to and his work ethic, and it’s so apparent that he’ll be a good football player. It’s basically like being a rookie again. He’s learning the offense completely new in a completely new position.”

Paul expressed no reservations about the position switch. Before he knew of the plan to make him a tight end, the 2011 fifth-round pick out of Nebraska was a heavier-than-normal receiver.

Going back to college, he said he always puts weight on during the offseason and has to drop it.

“[Strength and conditioning coach Ray Wright] called me and asked me how much I weighed. I was afraid to tell him I’m about 234 right now,” Paul recalled. “He was like, ‘Good. Stay at that.’ That’s when Coach Shanahan called me and asked me if I wanted to play tight end.”

Paul took that as a sign of respect, that a Super Bowl-winning coach who did so with Sharpe believed he could make that transition.

“He’s a natural football player. There’s a guy 235 pounds and runs like a wide receiver,” Shanahan said during training camp. “He could be a punt returner or kickoff returner. You could put him in the backfield as a running back. He’s got that type of athletic ability. Play any position on special teams. Those guys are hard to find, especially guys that are extremely bright and very dedicated.”

Dedication and willingness are there. Paul doesn’t have to wade amid a flood of receivers trying to justify a roster spot; instead his potential at tight end is worth salivating over.

But it’s not that easy. Sure he knew how to catch, but blocking was the big concern.

“First day I was watching Cowboys film [saying], ‘Y’all want me to block these big men?”’ Paul said. “They encouraged me, they pulled me aside, Cooley especially, and said, ‘You can do this. It may look hard. At the end of the day, once you get in your zone and you get your leverage, it’s not as bad as it looks.”’

It helped Paul that he still has 7 percent body fat and more muscle mass, giving him confidence to block big defenders.

Praised by Fred Davis for his aggressiveness, Paul isn’t lacking physically.

“Initially, the best thing about Niles was that he is an extremely physical football player,” Cooley said. “He has no qualms about smashing his head into someone else’s head.”

It’s more of a mechanical issue so far. Paul said he’s still getting comfortable with his stance, seeking more help from tight ends coach Sean McVay.

“He told me to try to get in a stance where I can actually key the ball,” Paul said. “I’ve got to look up and see what’s going on with the defense, and I’ve got to know what the snap count is on top of that. It’s just a lot going on that I’m not used to.”

Surprisingly, even to Paul, was that blocking has not been an issue this preseason. In the opener at the Buffalo Bills, his performance graded out well.

But in that same game, he was targeted five times and ended up with one reception, left to lament the missed opportunities and return to the “basics” of catching balls at the beginning and end of practice.

“No excuses. Those are just me dropping the ball,” he said. “Me and Sean are actually putting in extra work because it almost seemed like I spent so much time focusing on blocking that I forget that, hey, I’m still a receiver at the end of the day.”

Balancing those dual roles is just part of the challenge.

“I think this stands in our offense, the hardest position other than the quarterback is the tight end. What he’s going to have a problem with or what’s going to be, I guess, trouble for him adapting is the base of knowledge that he’s going to have to develop as a tight end,” Cooley said. “We just do so much in every facet of the game. You’ve got to be completely involved in the run-blocking scheme; you also have to be completely involved in the pass-blocking scheme.”

Cooley, whom Paul referred to as his “older brother” has tried to teach as a friend, instead of a coach. Paul said he and Davis feed off each other in practice, trying to one-up each other.

But as much as he’s learning from the established tight ends, he’s contributing to them.

“I’m taking more from him than he is from me,” Davis said. “He’s aggressive with every block he does. He goes hard with everything. That’s a plus for him. Every one of us can learn from that.”

Every day, every rep is a learning process for Paul. His speed is an asset, but he thinks there’s something else that’s letting him make a smooth transition to tight end.

“It’s my attitude, man. It’s just how I was raised,” Paul said. “I’ve never been a punk, I’ve never been scared, I’ve never backed down from a challenge. I take that attitude into football. I’m not afraid to fail, so I go in there and I compete, no matter what I do.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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