Niles Paul just wants to come home.
Redskins Park is all he has known the past seven seasons, and this facility, for better or worse, has been a personal refuge of sorts.
Washington was the team that drafted Paul in 2011, and the tight end wants to stay with the Redskins for the rest of his career, however long that might be.
“This is home for me,” Paul, 28, said in an interview Monday before heading upstairs for his end-of-the-season meeting with Coach Jay Gruden. “I’ve seen the progression of Redskins Park. I was here when we didn’t have a bubble. I was here when we didn’t even have a good cafeteria or a nice locker room. I feel like I’ve grown with this building.”
But the “scary” part, the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent admitted, is not knowing if the organization feels as strongly about him.
“I feel like I embody what a Redskin is,” said Paul, a special teams captain who converted from wide receiver to tight end when he entered the NFL and has since played fullback and been used on kick returns. “I feel like that’s what I’ve been. The same as Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Williams.
“I know I’m not recognized on the stat sheet, but I’m respected by players and the organization for being the type of player that this organization needs: a selfless player who’s willing to put his own personal goals to the side and do whatever the team needed.”
As he stood in the hallway outside the Redskins’ locker room, Paul acknowledged the reality of his situation. He is a seven-year veteran, whose age and injury history could be viewed as liabilities. He also spent the season at a crowded position, sandwiched between oft-injured star Jordan Reed, veteran Vernon Davis and 6-foot-5 rookie Jeremy Sprinkle.
“I’ve been one of the fortunate athletes to get drafted to an organization and build my foundation here and grow as a player here. I’m thankful for that,” Paul said. “And I know how the NFL works. They want younger guys. So I’m hoping they bring me back. I want to be here.”
But while he often was a forgotten man as the third-string tight end in the Redskins’ offense, Paul defended his value and intangibles.
He’s not flashy. Nor are his statistics gaudy. But he believes his passion, selflessness and commitment to building Washington into a perennial playoff team shouldn’t be overlooked.
“I may not be the star-caliber of those players just because I don’t have the stats,” Paul said. “I’m not Jordan Reed with the stats. Or Vernon Davis. I’m the third-string tight end who plays special teams. I’m kind of like the grinder. I stay in the shadows, in a sense. But everybody who turns on the film and watches me play knows the type of player I am.”
He was close to 20 pounds lighter (224 pounds) when he was drafted in the fifth round in 2011 but has since worked to gain weight (he is now at 242), improve his game and play any position Gruden asked of him. After catching 39 passes for 507 yards and one touchdown in 2014, Paul signed a three-year, $6 million extension (plus incentives) in March 2015.
“I came here with my head down as a young pup and did whatever I had to do to be on that field,” he said. “And I think that was my attitude for all seven seasons I was here. I did whatever the team needed. I feel like I’m the type of player who’s homegrown. I’m homegrown in this organization.”
But even Paul knows durability is just as important in the NFL as pure playmaking ability.
He ended the 2015 and 2016 seasons on injured reserve, suffering a left ankle fracture dislocation in a preseason game and, later, a torn labrum in his left shoulder that required surgery.
“This is the first out of [the past] three seasons I’ve made it through,” said Paul, who had 13 catches for 94 yards in 14 games, including eight starts, in 2017. He missed Weeks 9 and 10 after he suffered a concussion against the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 29.
While loyalty is a trait he prides himself on, Paul understands that same level of commitment isn’t always shown by NFL clubs. He stepped onto the MetLife Stadium field Sunday against the New York Giants fully aware that it could be his final game in a Redskins uniform. And following the team’s deflating 18-10 loss, he tweeted to his near-66,000 followers: “I don’t want to leave but I know it’s a business at the end of the day.”
Paul said the Redskins’ front office has yet to give him an indication about its free agency plans. “I haven’t heard anything,” he said.
But he also recalled that the organization hadn’t reached out about his extension until the week before he signed it.
Nevertheless, said Paul: “I think I’m more nervous now, though.”