Since taking over as General Manager of the Raiders, Reggie McKenzie has come across as a smart, level-headed guy with a plan.
He has one eye on his payroll and another on talent evaluation, and he’s shown that he wants to get as much bang for his buck as possible. And, unlike predecessor Al Davis, McKenzie says he isn’t in love with 40-yard dash times and college sprinters who might become the next Cliff Branch.
Yet the longtime NFL talent evaluator seemed to go off script this week when he dipped into the ranks of college basketball to sign Andre Hardy as a potential tight end. It’s a reach, right?
Well, no. It’s actually very much in keeping with the script – a low-cost, low-risk investment that could produce a big upside. And if it doesn’t, it’s no harm, no foul.
Hardy, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound forward from Cal State Fullerton who hasn’t played football since his high school days in San Diego, recently performed for NFL scouts at a pro day in his hometown. Several teams sent representatives, and many liked what they saw. He reportedly ran a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash and showed some good hands – a dash of the talent passed down from his father, also named Andre, who was an NFL running back for three seasons in the 1980s.
Though the younger Hardy never played college football, there is a track record for basketball players in college making it as tight ends in the NFL. Their footwork is strong and their ability to leverage their bodies in the key against defenders, fighting for rebound position, often translates well to getting open against defenders when running pass routes.
At 6-foot-5, Hardy is a small forward in basketball but a good-sized target in the NFL.
Hardy, of course, will have a steep learning curve and he’ll inevitably be compared with the Chargers’ Antonio Gates, who also didn’t play college football while becoming a standout basketball player at Kent State.
Gates, too, was a free agent who caught the eye of NFL scouts in workouts, then became one of the best tight ends in the NFL. Other college basketball players who have become good tight ends in the NFL – though they also played football to some degree, too – include Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham, Kevin Boss and Julius Thomas.
According to Pro Football Talk, Hardy not only has good speed, but is strong, having done 20 bench press reps of 225 pounds, and has a 35-inch vertical leap. In four seasons at Cal State Fullerton and Oral Roberts (where he played his first two seasons), Hardy averaged 7.0 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.
If Hardy were to impress the Raiders this summer and make the roster, he may be a work in progress for a while. After signing with the Chargers, for instance, Gates wasn’t an instant success. In his rookie season of 2003, Gates caught just 24 passes in 15 games. In the eight seasons since, however, Gates has caught 569 balls and averaged more than 13 yards per catch.
Graham played just one season of football at Miami, but flashed enough talent to be invited to the NFL Combine.
A story by Kevin Clark of the Wall Street Journal earlier this season, noted that former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt, known as a keen talent evaluator, often said the NFL should look for talent in college basketball. Brandt, wrote Clark, developed receiver Pete Gent and cornerback Cornell Green, both who had played college basketball but not football. Brandt told Clark that 2 to 3 percent of college forwards would be NFL-caliber players. Brandt told Clark the league’s hesitation to go after them is “a failure of creativity.”
So, give points to McKenzie for creativity. By signing Hardy, he may have gotten himself an athletic tight end for the future without using a draft pick or writing a big free-agent check. And if Hardy can’t play – if he fouls out in his attempt to switch sports – there’s little lost.