RICHMOND — Wes Phillips was an assistant coach helping with the Dallas Cowboys’ special teams four years ago when a young wide receiver for the Washington Redskins twice laid waste to a player on the kickoff return team.
The strength, speed and athleticism shown on those two plays stuck with Phillips, who is witnessing such feats three years later as the Redskins’ tight ends coach.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is tough,’” Phillips said. “That was my initial impression of Niles Paul without ever realizing that I was going to coach him.”
Paul played many roles for the Redskins during his first four seasons, shifting from wide receiver to tight end after his first year while also serving as a gunner on coverage units and a kickoff returner for his first two seasons.
Now, Paul has a chance to focus on just one. Coach Jay Gruden said adamantly on Monday that Paul has taken over as the Redskins’ top tight end, recognizing a player who is pegged to play a valuable role on offense after the best season of his career.
“In this business, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to survive here, to stay in the league, and I’ve done that,” Paul said.
Paul, once capable of running the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds, has slowly been filling out his 6-foot-1 frame. He played at 218 pounds during his senior season at Nebraska, but by his second year with the Redskins, when the conversion to tight end began, Paul had put on 15 pounds.
After adding 10 pounds prior last season, Paul added another 10 pounds this summer, pushing his weight to 250 pounds as of Monday afternoon. It’s a necessary move, as Paul hopes that the added strength and size will help him take the next step in his development as a tight end.
“He’s one of our strongest players,” Gruden said. “He’s self-made. He works very hard in the weight room. He’s very explosive. … He’s always been able to be a receiver. He’s got good speed, but to improve himself with his body so he can stand in there and block is the biggest improvement.”
Paul switched positions following his rookie year at the behest of former coach Mike Shanahan, who said at the time that he saw shades of Shannon Sharpe, the Hall of Fame tight end with the Denver Broncos in the mid-1990s, in Paul’s abilities.
The transition didn’t truly manifest itself until last season, when Paul saw the most extensive playing time of his career. Filling in primarily for starter Jordan Reed, who missed five games and portions of two others with injuries, Paul played approximately 53 percent of all offensive snaps and caught 39 passes for 507 yards — numbers that surpassed his totals from the first three seasons combined.
His opportunities only figure to grow. With the Redskins rededicating themselves to their running game, Paul has frequently joined Logan Paulsen in two-tight end sets in training camp, then has taken snaps alongside Reed or a third wide receiver in passing situations.
“I hope we use him in every aspect — our movement game, our nakeds and stuff like that, our play-action passes — and then feature him on third downs as well,” Phillips said. “He’s got some strengths. Everyone knows that we’ve got Jordan, who is an excellent pass-catcher, but Niles also has a skill set that’s different than Jordan’s. They can both be featured in different ways, and I’m excited about how we use him going forward in different game plans.”
For years, Paul has recognized a need to improve his blocking, both in the running game and in pass protection. Phillips said that Paul understood the footwork required of a tight end when the two started working together, but he needed to recognize the importance of using his strength and putting his hands in the right places when warding off defenders.
Although Paul’s height and length don’t jive with that of some of the league’s most explosive tight ends — he doesn’t have “those Jimmy Graham arms,” Phillips said — the trick will be to overcome that disadvantage with his strength. His speed also helps; though he’s lost a few ticks in his straight-line acceleration with the additional weight, he’s more easily able to create separation between himself and opposing linebackers or safeties.
To put on the weight, Paul said he adopted a diet this offseason that was heavy in carbohydrates. He rarely ate breakfast, but began doing so — and added a fourth meal — in order to build muscle.
“I did a lot of things right,” Paul said. “I got a lot of good work in and I feel like I did everything I was supposed to do.”
If so, Phillips could be taking note of a few other plays this season.
“He’s very confident right now in his abilities to do, really, anything we ask him to do — and that’s blocking, pass protection and making plays in the passing game,” Phillips said. “I’m really pleased with where he’s at. He’s really done an excellent job for me in every aspect, and I’m looking for big things from him.”