One of the advantages of being a football player is that there are so many positions. Each one matches a certain body type and a certain skill set, giving aspiring players options. If you have some speed, excellent lower body strength and decent hands, running back is the position for you. If you're an absolute burner on the field with a long frame, but not the best hands, you can make for a great cornerback, particularly in today's NFL. If you're a towering presence with long arms, amazing hands and some speed, you're going to be a wideout. If you are big and stout, yet have long arms and display some nimble feet, you are given the blind side tackle spot to protect the quarterback.
Whatever the case may be, a player will find a home at a certain position. However, what works at one level will not necessarily work at another. If a quarterback's first reaction is to run when his first read isn't open, he may be fast and strong enough to get away with it at the high school and college level, so he has success. However, when you're in the pros, there are 11 professional players on the defensive side who were all elite players at the previous level. That's when NFL quarterbacks have to learn to go through all their reads, with scrambling being the last resort.
Sometimes to make it to the NFL and to stay there, players have to adapt and realize their talents may have worked for one position in college, but won't translate to the next level. Heck, if Tim Tebow had accepted this fact, he'd still be in the NFL right now, be it as a complementary back, slot receiver or on special teams. Sometimes it's adapt or die and these players made a sacrifice to keep playing the game they love, even if it wasn't the position their hearts were set on. Here are 15 players who had to switch positions, but went on to have successful careers. This list will include players who had to change positions after college or even in the middle of their NFL careers. The list is necessarily ordered based on the caliber of their players, but more on how impressive - or drastic - their adjustment was.
15 Antwaan Randle El
The pass thrown by Antwaan Randle El to seal the Steelers' victory in Super Bowl XL was just a little too perfect for a receiver, right? That's because Randle El was a quarterback at Indiana, after passing up a career in baseball. Randle El set a freshman record in his first game, with 467 yards from scrimmage. At the time of his graduation, he was fifth in total yards from an NCAA player, with 7,469 passing yards and 3,895 rushing yards. Pittsburgh drafted him in the second round in 2002, with the intent of switching him to receiver and a returner.
His receiving stats were always solid, but never overly impressive. He did however, have a career passer rating of 156.1... in 27 passing attempts. Randle El threw six touchdows, but his pass to Hines Ward on a gadget play in the Super Bowl will forever be his biggest claim to fame. As George Costanza said, when you take everything he's accomplished and condense it down into one day... it looks decent.
14 Matt Jones
Matt Jones was an exceptional college quarterback, garnering records while playing pivot for Arkansas. However, his combine performance of a 4.4, 40-yard dash time, coupled with his 6-foot-6, 240 pound frame, convinced NFL coaches that he'd make more of an impact at receiver. He was at the time, the SEC's all-time leading rusher from the quarterback position. The Jaguars drafted him 21st overall in 2005 to play receiver. At the NFL level, Jones never quite materialized into the elite playmaker many had envisioned. After a series of substance abuse problems, Jones retired from the NFL in 2010.
When you think of Devin Hester, you don't think of him as anything but the most explosive return man of all time. Hester holds many NFL records as a returner, including 20 career return touchdowns, most punt return touchdowns in a season (4) and two kickoff return TDs in a game. He also holds just about every Chicago Bears return record. What we don't realize though, was Hester was drafted as a cornerback in 2006, even though he had really played a variety of roles in college.
Desperate for playmakers on an anemic offense, the Bears made Hester their no.1 option at wide receiver. Hester had some initial success with Jay Cutler in a pass happy offense, but Hester's talents weren't suited to be the go-to guy in the receiving game.
12 Frank Gifford
Frank Gifford was a running back for most of his career, but eventually had to be switched to wide receiver in order to lessen the contact he took on his body. Gifford rushed for over 3,500 yards in his career with the Giants, making eight Pro Bowl appearances and being named league MVP in 1956. Following a brutal shot by Chuck Bednarik that knocked Gifford out, he missed the entire 1961 season. He would return as a receiver, not having much success, but he did extend his career for three more seasons.
11 Herb Adderley
It must have been tough for Herb Adderley to accept a switch from running back to corner. This was a time where offenses operated heavily through running the ball, meaning Adderley would have to give up a lot of glory. Adderley was drafted out of Michigan State in 1961, but due to a crowded backfield, he never had the chance to get playing time. He was inserted at cornerback midseason due to injuries to Green Bay's starters. He went on to be one of the greatest corners in history and certainly in Packers history, setting franchise records for interceptions returned for touchdowns. He would win three Super Bowls and was on the 1960s All-Decade Team.
10 Ronnie Lott
While the transition from cornerback to safety isn't a huge stretch, given some of the other position changes we've seen, but Ronnie Lott was so successful at both that he had to be included. Lott was a first round pick as a corner in the 1981 draft and had four exceptional seasons at the position. He helped the 49ers to a Super Bowl and was an All-Pro. He would switch to safety after just four seasons, where he played another 11 years. Lott would lead the league in interceptions on multiple occasions and would win multiple Super Bowls.
9 Bobby Mitchell
Bobby Mitchell was drafted by the Browns in hopes of forming a best backfield in football, by pairing him with Jim Brown. The two clicked, as Mitchell proved to be the speedy, explosive back, a perfect complement for Brown's physical style. Eventually, the Redskins would acquire Mitchell in a trade, but to the surprise of many, moved him to wide receiver. Mitchell would thrive there, leading the league in receiving touchdowns in his first year at wideout. Mitchell never caught fewer than 58 passes in a season, but in 1967, coach Otto Graham decided to switch him back to tailback. Vince Lombardi would take over in Washington in 1969 and promised to switch Mitchell back to wide receiver, but realizing he was not in prime shape, Mitchell decided to retire.
8 Todd Christensen
Todd Christensen came into the league as a highly touted fullback, a position that has died down today, back in 1978. His career got off to a terrible start though, as he broke his foot in the team's final preseason game. The next year, Dallas wanted to switch him to tight end, but Christensen refused, resulting in his release. The Giants claimed him off waivers, but Christensen wasn't ready to accept a position change. He finally did so with the Raiders, and enjoyed a breakout season in 1982, followed by a career year in 1983, where he led the league with 92 catches. He would eventually make the Pro Bowl five times.
7 Charley Taylor
Charley Taylor is another name on this list that moved from the backfield to outside the numbers, as he enjoyed tremendous success early in his career as a running back. He won the rookie of the year award and made the Pro Bowl in his first two seasons. Otto Graham would perform another brilliant switch, moving Taylor to wide receiver. Taylor retired in 1977 with the career receptions record at 649 catches (which has obviously been surpassed).
6 Josh Cribbs
Josh Cribbs was one of the NFL's elite returners in his prime, but his talent was never fully appreciated by casual NFL fans, as he was stuck on some terrible Browns teams. Cribbs' journey to that was interesting, as he was Kent State's all-time passing leader in four years as a starting quarterback. He is the only player in NCAA history to lead his team in rushing and passing in four seasons. Despite that he went undrafted, before the Browns signed him, recognizing his speed could be an asset. Cribbs was a multiple time Pro-Bowler and made the all-decade team of the 2000s. He has struggled in recent years and looks to be at the end of his career.
5 Dante Hall
Dante Hall's transition from running back at Texas A&M (as well as returner) to his NFL career as a receiver and kick returner isn't so drastic, but what makes Hall a special case is he had to make a stop in NFL Europe first. After bring drafted in 2000, Hall only played a few games before being sent to the Scottish Claymores, where he learned to play wide receiver. He would return in 2002, where he would play receiver and would become the league's most dangerous return man. In 2003, Hall set an NFL record with a return touchdown in four straight games. Hall's career would mostly flourish as a returner, but it was amazing how he had to go to Europe just to earn a full-time starting job.
4 Julian Edelman
Imagine going from being perhaps the best quarterback in your school's history, to itching your way up the NFL ladder as a receiver. That's what Julian Edelman did, as he set several records at Kent State, including Cribbs' single season record for total offense. Edelman would be selected in the seventh round by New England back in 2009. Many felt he was underused in his first few years in New England, but that all changed once the Pats moved on from Wes Welker. Edelman broke out in 2013, recording 105 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. In last year's Super Bowl, Edelman played a major role, leading all receivers with nine catches for 109 yards and scoring what proved to be the winning touchdown.
3 Brian Mitchell
Brian Mitchell had a tremendous career in college as a quarterback. Playing for Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette), Mitchell became the first collegiate player to throw for 5,000 yards and rush for 3,000. However the NFL at the time still wasn't open to the idea of quarterbacks running around. Thus, the Washington Redskins drafted Mitchell in the fifth round of the 1990 draft to return kicks, something he had never done in college.
Mitchell played in the NFL for 14 years as a third down back and one of the most explosive returners of all time. He holds the record for combined kick and punt return yards with 19,013. Most impressively, he is second only to Jerry Rice in career all purpose yards with 23,330, just over 200 yards behind.
2 Rod Woodson
After a stellar career in Pittsburgh as a corner, Rod Woodson followed in Ronnie Lott's footsteps, transitioning to saftey, where he continued his career with San Francisco, Baltimore and Oakland. Woodson would win his only Super Bowl as a safety with Baltimore and made it to another one with the Raiders. Amazingly in his late 30s, Woodson recorded a career high eight interceptions, helping the Raiders reach the big game.
1 Charles Woodson
Charles Woodson's switch to safety after so many years as a corner has allowed him to keep playing well into his 30s, nearing his 40s. He was drafted fourth overall back in 1998 and after all these years, he's still in the NFL, perhaps being the most successful Heisman winner at the professional level. Woodson started in Oakland before signing a big contract with the Green Bay Packers back in 2006.
After many great years in Green Bay, including a Super Bowl, Woodson switched to safety back in the 2012 season to fill the void of an injured Nick Collins. Woodson returned to Oakland in 2013, and he's still going strong, now having gone from free safety to strong safety. When asked about the switch back in 2012, all Woodson saw it as was "just playing football".
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