Minutes before Derek Carrier’s first practice as a Washington Redskin ended Sunday afternoon, Coach Jay Gruden sidled up to his new tight end and asked a question that made both of them laugh. Gruden wanted to know if anything Carrier had done over the previous two hours resembled anything he’d been doing with the San Francisco 49ers just a few days earlier.
The answer spoke to both the steep learning curve Carrier faces and the desperate situation the Redskins must overcome at tight end this preseason.
“He’s like, ‘You guys do a lot of that in San Francisco?’ Carrier said walking off the field at Redskins Park. “I said, ‘No, not even close.’ ”
Washington acquired Carrier in a trade with the 49ers Friday, giving up a 2017 fifth-round draft pick in hopes of adding a potential impact player at a position of need following a slew of injuries. Veterans Niles Paul and Logan Paulsen have each suffered season-ending injuries in recent weeks and oft-injured projected starter Jordan Reed remains sidelined with a hamstring injury.
But unlike new Washington tight ends D.J. Williams and Ernst Brun, Jr., who were free agents added in the past week, Carrier had several potential suitors after emerging over the past year in San Francisco. He signed a two-year extension with the 49ers this offseason and Washington has him under contract through the 2017 season.
“Looks like he competes in the running game, which is excellent. But he’s obviously athletic,” Gruden said Sunday after practice. “I think it’s a good young prospect to work with. I wish we had him a little earlier. We’ll get him going. … But we’re excited about the prospect of him coming in and competing right away.”
All that, though, belies the uphill climb Carrier has already made, going from a star in both football and basketball at Division III Beloit College (Wis.) to the cusp of being an unlikely contributor in Washington.
Carrier, a third-year pro, entered the NFL as an undrafted wide receiver with Oakland and latched on with Philadelphia’s practice squad during the 2012 season. He then found a niche with San Francisco by switching to tight end and contributing on special teams, appearing in 11 games and catching nine passes for 105 yards before suffering a season-ending foot injury last season.
He was one of nine Division III players on an NFL opening-day roster in 2014, a list that also included Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon (Mount Union).
“It’s a big battle, but I think the problems and things you overcome make it even more sweeter,” Carrier said. “I think every year for me has been a learning process … just coming from a Division III school and then my first year playing receiver. Each year for me has just been a progressive step forward.”
Though he was “surprised” to be traded, Carrier also quickly realized there would be a chance for immediate playing time in Washington. He had one reception for five yards in San Francisco’s preseason opener against Houston earlier this month and said catching the ball remains a strength given his background as a receiver coming out of college. But he has also added about 30 pounds to his frame since converting to tight end two years ago and hopes to play in Washington’s preseason game at Baltimore this week.
Carrier, listed at 6 feet 4 and241 pounds, already had to sidestep one controversy during his first hours with the team. He was initially assigned a No. 47 jersey Saturday, the same number as former Washington tight end and current radio analyst Chris Cooley, who has been openly campaigning on the air to play for the Redskins again. Carrier went through Sunday’s practice wearing a No. 41 jersey.
He smiled when asked about the sudden number change, only disclosing that, “I just came out here and put on whatever they gave me.” Carrier then jogged away from the throng of fans getting autographs from his new teammates and went to work with tight ends coach Wes Phillips on a blocking sled.
“Being in this position, being in the NFL, you’ve got to make the most of your opportunities,” he said. “Every chance you’re given, you’ve got to seize it.”