NFL football players are some of the greatest athletes in the entire world. Watching phenomenal players like Antonio Brown and J.J. Watt, you just know that they were born to play their respective positions. But what if they didn’t play those positions? It is fairly uncommon in the NFL, but in the college ranks, players change positions on a regular basis. While some of these changes are fairly mundane (MLB to OLB), others completely change the players duties (QB to WR) or even change what side of the ball they play on.
As such, we shall look at eight current NFL players who changed positions in college, and seven others who probably needed one. Naturally, this list will be split into two parts. The first half is current NFL players who changed positions while in college. I have tried to limit this section to players who are fairly well-known. The second half of this list will include current NFL players who would benefit from a position change. While these players may be extremely successful in their current position, there is some reasoning behind why they should switch. If you can think of any players who switched positions in college (or maybe some who should switch now) who didn’t make our list, feel free to mention them in the comments.
15. Switched – Alejandro Villanueva
Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva was recently selected to the 2017 Pro Bowl at left tackle, making him a first-time selection. During his college days at the Army Academy, however, Villanueva’s career as an offensive tackle was anything but a certainty. Not only was Villanueva required to serve in the Army following his graduation, he also played as a tight end and defensive tackle on the Army football team. All this inconsistency with Villanueva is one of the biggest reasons why he went undrafted in the 2010 NFL draft. Between his exemplary play this season and the multi-year contract the Steelers gave him this offseason, I think it’s fair to say that Villanueva has finally found a permanent home at offensive tackle.
14. Should – Tyrod Taylor
After watching the Bills-Patriots game this past Sunday, two things were apparent; that the NFL referees have some weird affinity for the New England Patriots, and that Tyrod Taylor isn’t capable of being a playoff-caliber quarterback. With that being said, I have a hard time believing that a player of his athleticism and competitiveness has no place in the NFL. Assuming the Bills seek to replace Taylor after this season (hopefully with a better option than their rookie disaster, Nathan Peterman), he could either become a backup quarterback with another team, or he could begin the difficult road of making a position change. Unlike other players on this list, a change to wide receiver or tight end would be difficult for Tyrod, because he has played quarterback dating all the way back to his days at Texas A&M.
13. Switched – Braxton Miller
It is always nice to see a major college football program being proactive about the futures of their respective players. When the Ohio State Buckeyes switched Braxton Miller from quarterback to wide receiver in 2015, it was not only in the best interest of their football program, it was also in the best interest of Miller himself. Despite being one of the most electrifying quarterbacks in college football, Miller never had the throwing ability to make the transition to the pros. By making the switch to receiver, Miller was able to show off his skills to pro scouts, and the Texans were confident enough to select Miller in 3rd round of the 2016 Draft. Since coming to the NFL, Miller has been an important part of the Texans blossoming passing offense (until the injury to Deshaun Watson).
12. Should – Joe Webb
Joe Webb may not be as well-known as some of the other entries on this list, but he just might be the one most in need of a position change. Webb was one of the most electric players in the history of college football at UAB, and was drafted by Vikings in the 6th round of the 2010 NFL draft. Since being drafted, Webb has played primarily at quarterback, a decision that has seriously limited his effectiveness as a pro player. The Bills have experimented with Webb at wide receiver this season, and this is an avenue that he should certainly pursue more. It is unfair to him to continue to put in work as a quarterback when it is clear that he doesn’t have the arm strength to ever succeed at the NFL level. Were he to make the permanent switch to wide receiver, he could easily have a productive NFL career.
11. Switched – Terrelle Pryor
Terrelle Pryor made his ascent during a downtime for Ohio State (pre-suspension), so he never received the kind of attention that other players did. With that being said, he was a big-time quarterback prospect coming out of high school. Coming from Western Pennsylvania, comparisons were being made between Pryor and all-time NFL greats like Dan Marino. Despite his quarterback pedigree, Ohio State experimented with him at wide receiver. When Pryor was drafted by the Raiders in the supplemental draft, they played him as a quarterback, but for the past few seasons he has seen most of his success come as a wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins. The ability to go from a blue-chip quarterback recruit to a Pro Bowl wide receiver is certainly an admirable transformation.
10. Should – Terrelle Pryor
We have already talked about the switch that Terrelle Pryor made from blue-chip quarterback recruit to NFL wide receiver, but I’m not sure that I am 100% comfortable with this switch. There is simply too much potential in Pryor’s arm, and a deficit of talented quarterbacks in the league for me to think that Pryor wouldn’t be better off as an NFL quarterback. Toss in the fact that Pryor was a total no-show at receiver for the Washington Redskins this season, and I wonder whether he doesn’t have one more position switch left in him. With almost half of the league potentially looking for a quarterback next season, Pryor should be able to find playing time at quarterback with one of these hard-pressed teams.
9. Switched – Ryan Tannehill
Prior to the 2017 season, there were serious questions about Ryan Tannehill’s future as the franchise quarterback of the Miami Dolphins. Tannehill may have solidified his position without playing a single game this season. The reason for this, is that the quarterbacks the Dolphins brought in to replace Tannehill after his devastating knee injury were so terrible, that the Dolphins have little choice (aside from drafting a quarterback high in the 2018 Draft) but to move forward with Tannehill as their quarterback. When Tannehill is at his best, he is using his athleticism and ad–libbing in cohesion with his receivers. His knowledge of receiving routes largely comes from the fact that Tannehill played wide receiver for multiple seasons at Texas A&M University.
8. Should – Vontaze Burfict
When discussing the weaknesses of Vontaze Burfict, people are quick to point out his obvious attitude problems. What his multiple personal foul penalties have masked, however, is the declining speed and athleticism of the young linebacker. Through only a few years in the NFL, Burfict’s coverage skills have noticeably declined, making him something of a liability in the Bengals pass defense. If the Bengals were to switch him to inside linebacker, Burfict would have less coverage responsibilities, and would be able to use his hard-hitting abilities more as a designated run stuffer. With Marvin Lewis’ imminent departure from Cincinnati, it will fall to the next Bengals coach to make these kinds of necessary changes. That is, if the next coach is able to stomach all of Burfict’s more noticeable shortcomings.
7. Switched – Richard Sherman
Despite the fact that opposing quarterbacks routinely throw across the field to avoid Sherman, the seven-year pro has had 32 career interceptions. Part of the reason for Sherman’s exceptional ball skills is the fact that he played wide receiver during his days at Stanford University. Sherman actually led the Cardinals in receiving during his Freshman year, and was named to the Freshman All-American team. This continued for the next two seasons, before a regime change (and a serious knee injury) caused coaches to try him on the defensive side of the ball. Sherman impressed so much in his new role that he was still selected in the 5th round of the 2011 draft. Imagine where the Legion of Boom would be if Sherman had stayed at his original position.
6. Should – James Harrison
By now, we know that James Harrison was recently cut by the Steelers, but that fact only underscores the need for him to transition away from the outside linebacker position that made him one of the most feared players in the league. After leading the Steelers in sacks last season, many fans were surprised that the team made him inactive for almost the entire first half of the season. If you understand what the Steelers require of their outside linebackers (as well as every other team that runs the 3-4 defense), however, it makes perfect sense why the multi-time All-Pro had his snap count lowered this year. In his advanced age, Harrison isn’t able to work in coverage as he once could. As such, he would be much better off with a team that can use him purely as a pass rusher.
5. Switched – Denard Robinson
Unfortunately for him, the lasting image of Denard Robinson’s college football career is the devastating hit that Jadeveon Clowney laid on him during his Senior season. Robinson was playing running back on that day, but before he ever made that switch, he was one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the entire league. Robinson was such a highlight reel as the Michigan signal caller, that he was featured on the cover of the last version of EA Sports’ NCAA Football video game. Following the year in which he was named to the cover, Robinson saw his skills (most notably his throwing and decision making) decline, causing the Wolverines to move him to the backfield. Robinson has remained at running back in the NFL, and has had some success in that role.
4. Should – Richie Incognito
It is always hard to argue that a player would benefit from a position change in a year where they were elected to the Pro Bowl, but I have thought for years that Richie Incognito would benefit from a switch to the defensive side of the ball. While Incognito has been a good (or maybe even great) interior offensive lineman in the NFL, he has become notorious for his malicious play. I think Richie would find that his mean streak and extracurricular activities would be much more acceptable were he a defensive player. It is simply more acceptable for defenders to maul offensive skill positions (but never the quarterback) than it is for offensive lineman to come at defensive stars.
3. Switched – Julian Edelman
It is one of the greatest questions in football, how Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots continue to turn these little-known wide receivers into perennial Pro Bowlers. The current incarnation of this is Julian Edelman, a nine-year pro out of Kent State. Edelman wasn’t selected until the 7th round of the 2009 NFL Draft, but this hasn’t stopped him from becoming Brady’s most reliable target. Maybe part of the feel that Edelman has for the passing game comes from the fact that he played quarterback in college. Despite playing primarily at quarterback in college, Edelman was an accomplished rusher and receiver. He actually beat the total yardage record set by Josh Cribbs at Kent State in 2003.
2. Should – Le’Veon Bell
Considering that Le’veon Bell is one of (if not the) premier running back in the NFL, I doubt that he envisions a position change for himself anytime in the near future. But maybe he should. Not only has Bell run for almost 1,300 yards this season, he has also caught 100 passes for over 600 yards. This made him the second leading receiver on the Steelers, and one of the best pass-catching backs in the league. Given the limited shelf life of NFL running backs, a position switch to wide receiver may significantly prolong the career of Bell, one of the most dynamic offensive players in the entire league. While this would certainly cut into Bell’s earning potential (something he has been very reluctant to do), it may be the best thing for Bell in the long run both statistically and financially.
1. Switched – J.J. Watt
Despite being an incredibly small program, Central Michigan University has seen quite a few productive players make waves in the NFL. Given the programs lack of winning ways, however, one can legitimately question how these All-Star players were handled at Central Michigan. A perfect example of this is J.J. Watt. The All-Pro defensive end (and perhaps the greatest NFL defensive player since Lawrence Taylor) was recruited by CMU to play tight end. After a full season of being minimally effective, the CMU coaching staff suggested that Watt transition and play offensive tackle. Instead, Watt elected to walk onto the University of Wisconsin team, and has since come to redefine the defensive end position. The rest, as they say, is history.
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