Tip Sheet: Scouting the Final Four
Search for the next Gates or Gonzalez has led NFL scouts to Indianapolis
When the Final Four tips off at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday evening, the sellout crowd will include talent evaluators from at least four NFL franchises.
Closet college basketball junkies, right? In part, no doubt. But in addition to enjoying the NCAA hoops semifinals, the scouts also will be doing a little business.
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Even before one-time high school linebacker Antonio Gates, a basketball standout at Kent State who never played college football, transformed himself into a six-time Pro Bowl tight end with the San Diego Chargers, NFL scouts were seeking to identify basketball players with athletic skills who might translate to the gridiron. The success of Gates, signed by the Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2003 and a player with four seasons of 75 or more receptions, has prompted the league to further expand its already burgeoning database.
So when Butler meets Michigan State and then West Virginia takes on Duke, league scouts will be trying to find athletes capable of grabbing more than a bounce pass, or boxing out more than an opposition rebounder, or of better handling a combination zone coverage than a 1-3-1 trap press.
Free Throws To Forearm Shivers
A number of men through the years have made the successful transition from college basketball standout to NFL player. Here are a few -- but hardly all -- of them:
In the spring of 2006, the University of Connecticut's bruising basketball forward Ed Nelson felt he could make the transition to football tight end, and had local agent Joe Linta make a few phone calls to friends in the NFL community to stage a workout. The audition was attended by representatives from nearly half the teams in the league.
"It was like [chum] in the water," Linta recalled. "People came out of the woodwork."
That same year, a small army of league bird dogs was present for the workout of George Mason forward Jai Lewis, and he auditioned at several positions. A year earlier, Mercer University standout Wesley Duke convinced clubs he could play tight end.
Nelson signed a modest contract with St. Louis and was summarily released after a three-day rookie minicamp. Lewis got a contract from the New York Giants but never made it to training camp, abandoning the football experiment after only two months. Duke, who signed with Denver and also played in the World League, appeared in three games, caught two passes for 22 yards and a touchdown, and then decided that driving down the middle for a layup might be less treacherous than going over the middle for a short pass.
Likely future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, who plays for Atlanta now after 12 seasons in Kansas City, is frequently cited as a former college basketball player who made good at the NFL level. But Gonzalez, while a good basketball player at California, was principally a football player, not really an athlete who ditched his sneakers for a pair of cleats.
"Everybody thinks they can do it but even for a great athlete, it's not nearly as easy as you think," said Sam Clancy, who finished his career at the University of Pittsburgh as the leading rebounder in school history but was considered too short by NBA standards. Clancy spent 10 seasons in the NFL as a defensive lineman and was later an assistant coach. "Trust me, it ain't as easy as it looks."
Still, that harsh reality won't preclude some NFL teams from requesting credentials for or even buying tickets to the Saturday games. Because there are so few seniors or draft-eligible players on Final Four rosters, the number of NFL clubs in attendance might be a bit reduced from past years. But there are a few potential prospects, such as Butler forward Willie Veasley, who will merit a scouting report.
"The thing about these guys trying to move [to the NFL] is that you've got to be patient," Linta said. "For them, it's like learning a foreign language and being expected to understand it in a few days."
But there is only one language -- in any tongue, "win, baby" pretty much translates the same -- that teams and scouts understand.
Green Bay, which in recent seasons has worked out a number of college basketball players and last year looked at former Duke point guard Greg Paulus before he enrolled at Syracuse, already has auditioned former Niagara hops standout Tyrone Lewis (the third-leading scorer in school history but with a very solid high school football background) this spring.
Years ago, when teams could bring 120 players to training camp, then-Dallas personnel expert Gil Brandt -- now an NFL Network analyst -- essentially introduced the notion of signing college basketball players. Then again, 40-some years ago, Brandt and Dallas coaches could exercise the kind of patience to which Linta alluded, and the Cowboys found stars such as wide receiver Pete Gent, defensive back Cornell Green, tight end Ron Howard, tailback Preston Pearson and others.
The league's 80-player roster limits for camp have reduced the number of gambles teams can take now, and thus the opportunities for basketball players to stick as developmental projects. But it won't stop scouts from looking for that point-guard-in-the-rough who can earn a spot on the developmental squad and then become a contributor. And even in an era in which the term "sleeper" has been rendered virtually obsolete, it won't reduce the degree of covert activity that takes place in scouting nontraditional prospects.
None of the four NFL teams that confirmed to ESPN.com that they'll have at least one scout present for the Final Four would admit for attribution that they will have representatives at Saturday's semifinal games. But if you're one of the lucky folks at Lucas Oil Stadium and you spy a guy whispering into a tape recorder or feverishly taking notes, don't be surprised.
"It's proof that [prospects] can come in all sizes," said former NFL tight end Marcus Pollard, who played 14 seasons in the league after a standout hoops career at Bradley University. "And you can find them in [unorthodox] places sometimes."
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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