ASHBURN, Va - When Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan decided to convert second-year wide-out Niles Paul to a tight end earlier this offseason, he was willing to make a bold comparison while doing so.
"I hate to compare anybody to a Hall of Fame player," Shanahan said recently in a radio interview, "but Shannon Sharpe came into Denver at exactly the same height [and] was about five pounds less than what Niles Paul weighed."
Indeed, Sharpe, an eight-time Pro Bowler, played the tight end position at 6-2 and 228 pounds. And like Paul, Sharpe had to convert to playing tight end after being drafted in the seventh round as a receiver from Division-II Savannah State.
So when Shanahan brought the Hall of Fame tight end along with fellow former Bronco Rod Smith to Redskins Park to address the team recently, it was obvious whose advice Paul was going to seek. When Paul asked Sharpe - someone who played under Shanahan for seven of his 14 years in the league -- what it meant that the coach was willing to convert him to a new position, the response was candid.
"This [transition] is one of two steps," Paul recalled Sharpe telling him. "The next step is out the door."
It was a harsh message, but one that had merit. With the team signing veteran wideouts Pierre Garcon and Joshua Morgan to multi-year deals in free agency, competition was sure to be tough for Paul at the receiver position. But rather than releasing him outright, he was given another opportunity by the coaching staff to find a place on the roster by having him switch positions.
"They could have just showed me the door," said Paul about Shanahan's decision. "[Sharpe] said ‘They're trying to find you a home [on the roster]. Coach Shanahan believes in you enough to find you a home, you just got to make him right.'"
In order to prove his head coach right, Paul will have to blend the familiar skillset of being a pass-catcher with some of the more rugged, intricate elements more suited for being an offensive lineman.
"I feel like it's going as smoothly as it can." Paul said of the transition. "Passing game stuff is easy for me to pick up on because it's the same stuff I did as a wide receiver, [and] I'm getting more comfortable with coming out of a three-point stance and blocking."
Paul presents an obvious matchup problem in the passing game, as his speed-size combination could prove too much for opposing linebackers and safeties to handle in coverage.
In order to become a competent tight end, however, he'll also have to learn to become a capable blocker. During three weeks of OTA practices, Paul's had his first crack at nailing down the complexities of both pass protection and run blocking techniques
"I'm just playing basketball out there," he said with a laugh. "I have to pick up on combo blocks and read the defense a lot better than what I had to [do] at receiver."
At 234 pounds, and in a division with the likes of Jason Babin, Jason Pierre-Paul and DeMarcus Ware, it's obvious that Paul's biggest challenge will not only learning the art of blocking, but doing so against the league's top-tier pass rushers.
"Shannon Sharpe told me when I was talking to him ‘You gotta understand that [you're] a small guy, [you're] not going to win every battle'," Paul said. "My role is to protect the running back and the QB. He said as long as I'm doing my job, that's all that matters."
But whether he wins or loses those battles in the months ahead, Paul says he's grateful that he's been given a chance to stick on this roster by a coaching staff that appears to still believe in him.
"For [Shanahan] to call me and let me know that they want to give me a chance and find me a home on the field," Paul said. "I just appreciate the opportunity."