In a league as demanding and cut-throat as the NFL, there is a set trajectory for every player scouted in college, before they even set foot in the big-time. Sometimes, that trajectory falls flat on its face.
There have been many prospects who have dominated at their respective positions in the college ranks, only to make the pro ranks and discover that their skill set isn't suited to face the biggest, fastest and strongest that the sport has to offer on a weekly basis. But is there more to the story? Would these players have benefited from a timely switch to a position more suited to their skill set?
Even for players who had a marginally successful pro career, this is often the case. In the college game, elite players who are pro-bound do not always face elite competition, and even when they do, not everyone on the field is built to play pro football. When they get to the NFL, if they are struggling throughout their first year in the league, it's up to the coaching staff to consider that a possibly remedy to the problem could be a position switch. Sure, maybe that means your first round pick won't be the quarterback you thought could be a franchise savior, but you can still get mileage out of them rather than releasing them outright.
Of course, there are no guarantees. Maybe swapping positions isn't the answer to turn a could-be prospect into a productive pro player, but one can't help but consider the possibility. At the very least, if they fail at the position switch, it removes all doubt that a pro-career was ever in the running for them. Below are the top 15 NFL players that ultimately should have, or could have, played somewhere else on the field.
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15 Vince Young - RB
Young was a standout quarterback prospect at Texas during the 2005 college football season, leading the Longhorns to a Rose Bowl Victory. This didn't translate well to the next level as he never threw for more than 2,600 yards in a single season, during his five years as Tennessee's starter.
Young's coaching staff could have tried his natural running ability in the backfield, especially after his first season starting at QB in which he completed just 51.5% of his passes. It's unlikely he would have been the second-coming of Barry Sanders, but he could have sufficed as a change-up runner.
14 JaMarcus Russell - TE
Widely considered one of the most obvious draft busts of all time, Russell never got off the ground in three seasons as Oakland's QB. After being selected number one overall by the Raiders in 2007, Russell never threw for more than 2,400 yards in a season, and posted a dreadful 48.8 completion percentage in his final season.
To prolong his career, Russell could have developed as a depth tight end. He had the physical traits; lots size and bulk. An offseason spent working to develop blocking technique, and some work on the Jugs machine catching passes could have kept him a job in the league.
13 Carey Spear - S
Most kickers couldn't have dished out the punishment that Spear did to opposing kick returners when he played at Vanderbilt. He did not shy away from contact, and his legendary hits, which earned him the admiration of his college teammates, are still available on Youtube.
But Spear didn't pan out at his native position in the NFL. He spent the 2014 training camp with the Eagles and the 2015 camp with the Browns, failing to make both of those rosters. If he ever learned the defensive side of the ball, he could serve as a potential depth safety. At the very least, you know he wouldn't be afraid to tackle.
12 William Perry - FB
This one was put into practice here and there by Chicago, who would use "The Refrigerator" to pound one in at the goal line from time to time. Still, one can't help but wonder what Perry could have done as the every day fullback on the Bears' roster.
He certainly had the size--at well over 300 pounds, Perry was a staple on the defensive line for Mike Ditka's legendary Bears teams. With a few cone drills, he would have been an interesting and effective option in the backfield. With his massive size, a portion of the game plan would have to be devoted strictly to him. Opposing linebackers were likely glad it never came to be.
11 Deion Sanders - WR
Okay, we all know that "Primetime" was one of the best defensive backs in the history of the game, but the thought of what he could have done as a receiver has crossed everyone's mind at least once. With a 4.21 second 40-yard-dash time, Sanders would have fit the bill, and likely been the subject of dozens of highlight reel plays on the offensive side of the ball.
His speed would have lent to versatility on offense. End-around? Bubble screens? Slant routes? Deep cross? Wildcat formation? Sanders could have made them all work with his blistering speed. As it turned out, he decided to be one of the best cover corners ever, and tallied 53 career interceptions, which nobody can complain about.
10 "Rocket" Ismail - CB
Ismail was a decent receiver in the pros, notching 1,000 yard receiving seasons twice in 1998 and 1999 respectively. His success at Notre Dame however, did not translate fully into the pro ranks, achieving just 800 receiving only one other time in his nine year career.
His speed however, was not middle of the road. Ismail ran a blistering 4.28 second 40-yard-dash, and with some applied cover skills, and a nose for the ball, certainly could have had success as a cover corner. With his speed, he could have been left isolated on the outside, and potentially could have provided a team with that luxury. Ultimately, Ismail was successful enough at his native position, but this experiment could have had legitimate upside in the right franchise.
9 Josh Freeman - TE
Freeman's still trying to make a go of it as the Colts backup next season, but it's safe to say the ship has mostly sailed for the Kansas State prospect. He came out of the draft with high hopes for Tampa Bay, and even notched at least 3,400 yards passing three times in his first four years, but accuracy was his achilles heel, with 68 career interceptions.
His lanky frame, and considerable bulk (for a quarterback) could serve as a depth TE on some teams. Likely more of the receiving type at the position, with some work catching contested passes, he has the frame to be (don't laugh), a considerable red zone threat in the right offense. It's unlikely to happen, and if Colts starter Andrew Luck goes down next year he could potentially be a starting QB again, but it's worth the thought.
8 Randall Cunningham - P
So this one is kind of tongue-in-cheek, but with some actual basis in reality. Cunningham was an innovative and successful QB for the Eagles and Vikings throughout his career, so he never really needed this switch. However, he was also used as a spot-punter at times for the Eagles.
And he was good at it. At a game between the Eagles and Giants at the Meadowlands, Philadelphia was pinned back at their own end zone and Cunningham was called on to punt. He blasted the ball 70 yards in the air, before it skipped another 21 yards down to the Giants' seven yard line.
That's right--a QB punted a ball 91 yards, the third longest in league history, in a live game. It's safe to say that this is a position switch that would have been a possibility if Cunningham's arm ever gave out. As it stands, it's a great piece of trivia.
7 Terrelle Pryor - WR
Here's one that has been put into action, and still could work out. After spending his time at Ohio State as a QB, Pryor has bounced around the league with numerous teams, with most of his time spent in Oakland, where he was a spot starter at QB, and WR. He's flashed big play potential, his only reception last year being 42 yards, and is currently competing for a spot on the Browns' roster as a receiver.
One could make the argument he should have began the switch at Ohio State, but he did find success at QB there. Mainly, what Pryor's story proves is the difficulty involved in switching positions at the pro level. He has the raw skill to be an NFL receiver, but putting the technique into practice is an uphill battle.
6 Michael Vick - RB
This is another interesting thought experiment, just because of Vick's sheer athleticism. Successful enough as a QB, the talk about Vick was always about his running ability. As a QB, he was often the fastest player on the field, something nearly unprecedented in league history.
One can't help but consider the possibilities he would have provided out of the backfield. A simple wheel route would have always been a touchdown threat. His speed always alienated defensive game plans, and this position switch would have continued that trend. As it was, he did enough damage as a QB over his 13-year-long (and counting) career, combining his freakish speed, with his cannon of an arm.
5 Devin Hester - CB
Another burner of a receiver who could have paid the bills from the CB position. Hester never notched even an 800 yard receiving season in his ongoing career, and cemented his role as a return man. In the secondary, he still could have performed that duty, but with the right coaching, could have had better results to show for it off the special teams unit.
His size would have lent himself well to the slot corner role, as he would have struggled on the outside. But playing in the slot also meant he would be on the field less often, minimizing injury risk, and giving him a breather between kick returns. Though Hester is still technically in the league, he is in the twilight of his career, and this switch has zero chance of happening.
4 Bo Jackson - OLB
To be fair, Jackson was such a remarkable athlete that he probably could have played just about anywhere on the field--in any sport. On the football field though, he could have done serious damage as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, instead of his usual running back role when he was in the pros.
He definitely had the speed. His mind-boggling 4.12 second 40-yard-dash time would allow him to blitz off the edge, stop the run, drop into pass coverage, or spy a running QB. In short, he had the physical potential to give offenses nightmares in all aspects of the game. Had he ever fully committed to football and learned tackling technique, this would have been an absolute spectacle to watch.
3 Brandon Weeden - TE
This one has been a long time coming. Most people could have predicted that Weeden was not going to be successful in the pros as a 26-year-old rookie. After stints starting for the Browns, Cowboys and Texans, it is pretty evident that his future is not at QB.
He could potentially make the transition to TE given his size. In fact, if he got competent with the technique the position requires, he could actually have value as both a blocker and red zone receiving threat. It's unlikely to happen this far into his career, but if it did, it couldn't be more underwhelming than his performance at his native position.
2 Darren Sproles - WR
Sproles has always been a nightmare for defensive coordinators to combat. The pint-sized powerhouse is a match-up problem for just about any defender, and after a few steps has breakout speed. He's always been used out of the backfield, but he could provide similar damage lined up on the outside.
Naturally, the first thought is to put him in the slot, where he could shred defenses on slant routes, and short crossing patterns. He doesn't have the height to play out wide consistently, but could make for an effective option several times a game. In short, he would be able to duplicate his success from the backfield, into nearly any offensive position.
1 Tim Tebow - FB
It should have been the case all along. There is no justifiable reason that Tebow should have gotten out of his first training camp in Denver as a QB. While a national-title winning QB at Florida, Tebow never really had the ability to play the position at the next level, and it was obvious. The Broncos made the playoffs in 2011 because of their defense, a year that saw Tebow complete just 46.6% of his passes.
Still, he wouldn't have been useless. His size, positive attitude and commitment to winning would have made a serviceable FB or special teams player. At the very least, he would have put the effort in. Tebow didn't need to play a glamorous position like QB, his fanbase just never acknowledged that he wasn't good at it, and as such, no one ever thought to make the switch. He was and is, undoubtedly a great teammate to have in the locker room, he just never was able to throw an NFL post-pattern. It happens.
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