NFL looking for next Antonio Gates

OWINGS MILLS -- Searching for reclusive chess champion Bobby Fischer has nothing on NFL scouts' quest to find the next Antonio Gates. Gates is the remarkable San Diego Chargers' All-Pro tight end. He's big, fast, tough, intelligent and he never played a down of college football at Kent State.

Ever since Gates parlayed his athleticism and a strong showing as a 6-foot-4, 260-pound power forward in the NCAA basketball tournament's Elite Eight in 2002 to emerge as one of the NFL's top offensive players, the league has been looking for his clone.

George Mason basketball player Jai Lewis, the bulky Aberdeen native who helped the upstart Patriots reach this spring's Final Four, and rugged University of Connecticut power forward Ed Nelson are the latest challengers to Gates' throne.

Both have a lot of work to do to reach his status, though. If they don't make the NFL, it won't be from a lack of exposure or opportunity.

The Baltimore Ravens were one of a dozen NFL teams to attend Nelson's workout Friday, when the 6-6, 262-pound projected tight end ran the 40-yard dash in 4.95 seconds and registered a 34-inch vertical leap.

Nelson reportedly impressed scouts with his hands, performing for the Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants, Washington Redskins, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams and Miami Dolphins.

It wasn't a coincidence that the Chargers tight end coach spent a lot of time with Nelson afterward along with the Redskins.

The consensus among scouts was that Nelson is a developmental prospect likely to be on a practice squad for at least two years.

Apparently, Lewis, who worked out as an offensive tackle, defensive lineman and tight end, might want to stick with basketball.

Lewis weighed in at a soft 290 pounds at nearly 6-6 and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.95 and 5.0 seconds, an improvement over the 5.18 he clocked a week ago. However, he dropped several passes and struggled in agility drills in a workout attended by the Redskins, Eagles, Giants, Jets, Dolphins, Patriots, Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers.

Lewis flew to Cincinnati after the workout to visit the Bengals and take a physical. The St. Louis Rams are flying in Tuesday to visit Lewis. The Ravens didn't attend, but have been requested a DVD of Lewis' workout.
"It's just like being out there in the Final Four with 40,000 people watching," Lewis told reporters. "All their eyes are on you, so it's pretty much the same."

Lewis was recruited by Virginia Tech and East Carolina after excelling at football and basketball at Aberdeen, but the NFL is an elite proving ground and there's a lot of rust.

"Everyone has to understand one thing: This kid's been doing this only for a week,' Bengals tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes told reporters. "Obviously, the drills are going to be a little rusty, but the thing he has done is been an athlete for four years, and a damn good one, so that's where sometimes he can catch up on the learning curve. I think he has the willingness. Now we'll see where it goes from there.
 

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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