“I kind of started to panic a little bit, because I thought it was the call that was cutting me loose,” Paul said. “I don’t know. I don’t know how this process works.”
Paul recognized the voice at the other end as belonging to Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan and remained convinced he was moments from being cut. Instead, Shanahan asked the second-year player a question that quickly would alter Paul’s place on the team, not to mention his career path.
How do you feel about moving to tight end?
Two months later, Shanahan would compare Paul to a Hall of Fame tight end, and Paul is spending Redskins training camp adjusting to a new position with his roster spot secured. That would not have been the case had he declined Shanahan’s request.
“Niles is a good athlete; they wanted to keep him here,” Redskins starting tight end Fred Davis said. “And he’s a good special teams guy. At the end of the day, they know they can use him on offense, too, if they need to. I wouldn’t let a guy like that go.”
Paul, whom the Redskins selected in the fifth round of the 2011 draft out of Nebraska, filled in at tight end for the last three games of his rookie season with Davis suspended and reserve tight end Chris Cooley on injured reserve. But Paul said he did not get into a three-point stance during that stint and figured it was just a temporary position change.
Redskins coaches, however, came away with a different impression. They saw Paul’s speed — he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds at the 2011 NFL combine — and his blocking ability and believed they could mold him into a dynamic threat at tight end. It wasn’t a conclusion the coaching staff at Nebraska ever reached, but Shawn Watson, Paul’s offensive coordinator with the Cornhuskers, said in a phone interview he’s not surprised the Redskins encouraged Paul to make the transition.
“Whenever we needed something done that was of a physical nature — for example, bringing a receiver in motion and cracking a linebacker — we asked Niles to do it,” said Watson, now the offensive coordinator at Louisville.
At Nebraska, Paul’s weight would climb 15 pounds or so above his playing weight (218 pounds) during the early months of the offseason, when weightlifting claimed priority over cardio work, and this past winter was no different.
A few days before Shanahan called Paul in March, Ray Wright, the Redskins’ strength and conditioning coach, phoned Paul to inquire about the player’s weight.
“I was at 234, but I was scared to tell Ray that,” Paul said. “I told Ray, ‘I’m a little heavy right now.’ ”
Wright kept pressing Paul for an actual number, and finally Paul gave up the number. To his surprise, Wright told him to stay at that weight. After the talk with Shanahan, Paul understood Wright’s directive.