Redskins tight end Niles Paul sat in front of his locker late last month and recalled a conversation he had with his wide receivers coach at Nebraska, Ted Gilmore, before entering the NFL.
“When you get to this,” Gilmore told Paul at the time, “make sure you do whatever it takes.”
For much of Paul’s first three years in Washington, “whatever it takes” meant a lot of blocking and a heavy special teams workload. In the summer of 2012, it meant gaining weight and switching positions from wide receiver to tight end. And on Sunday, it meant not just stepping in for injured starter Jordan Reed, but also making an impact in that role.
In a 41-10 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Paul led the Redskins in targets (11), receptions (eight) and receiving yards (99), each a career-high. He hauled in one touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter and was one yard shy of another in the first half.
“It wasn’t about personal [achievements],” Paul said after the game. “It was just about making the most of my opportunities and trying to get this win for the team.”
Until Sunday, however, those opportunities had been relatively hard to come by.
SEE ALSO: LOVERRO: A Redskins QB controversy worth cheering for
Though Paul was drafted in the fifth round in 2011 and once compared to Shannon Sharpe by former Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, he was always a special teams player near the bottom of the offensive depth chart.
As a rookie wide receiver, he touched the ball only five times, including twice on special teams. When he switched positions the following season, he couldn’t match the experience of Fred Davis and Chris Cooley, nor the blocking prowess of Logan Paulsen.
“It’s been a process,” Paul said, “becoming [and] actually considering myself a true tight end.”
Paul was a three-sport standout in high school, averaging 19 points per game on the basketball court as a senior and winning two state championships in the 110-meter hurdles. He has always had plenty of natural speed and athleticism, and plenty of experience running routes and catching passes from his time at Nebraska. But when he first switched to tight end, he struggled as a blocker.
Paul continued to focus on that aspect of his game this past summer, staying in Virginia to work out with Reed and Paulsen. While perfecting his technique and footwork, he also put on a few additional pounds of muscle. After being drafted at 225 pounds, he is now listed at 241.
“I worked hard this offseason,” Paul said. “I stayed here with the guys who obviously know how I work, know how I train. I took steps to trying to become a new tight end.”
SEE ALSO: Washington Redskins release safety Bacarri Rambo
Coach Jay Gruden has certainly taken notice.
“Niles is one of the most improved players on this team, I believe, not just in the passing game but in the running game,” he said. “The most impressive thing to me is his blocking ability both in pass protection and in the running game. He is very strong, has improved strength in the weight room with [head strength and conditioning coach] Ray Wright, and it’s just impressive. He’s really, really starting to come on and become a big factor for us.”
In the second half of Washington’s season-opener, Paul caught a pass from Robert Griffin III in the middle of the field and took off toward the end zone. But as he sprinted through Houston Texans territory, he was stripped by a defender and fumbled away what would have been a 48-yard completion. It was one of two costly red-zone turnovers that contributed to the Redskins’ 17-6 loss.
Fullback Darrel Young, one of Paul’s closest friends on the team, was impressed with the way Paul handled that mistake, and how he bounced back the following week.
“He took a lot of heat for that play that he had in Houston,” Young said. “That’s what being a pro is about. It’s about playing every week. Obviously every week’s not going to be your best, but when you get an opportunity, go out there and shine.”
Paul is unsure how many more opportunities he’ll get this season. Reed suffered a left hamstring strain in the first quarter of the season-opener and has been sidelined since, but Gruden said he could play Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles if he practices at least once this week.
If and when Reed is able to start, Paul said he hopes the coaching staff will be able to find a way to use both he and Reed, as well as Paulsen, in various offensive formations throughout the game. “But that’s up to the coaches,” Paul added.
If that is not the case, Paul will continue to contribute on special teams, where, at just 25 years old, he has become one of the unit’s leaders.
Even several years later, Gilmore’s advice for Paul still rings true. He is still willing to do whatever it takes.
“I just take on the role that comes,” he said.