Health permitting, Niles Paul's versatility grants coach Jay Gruden options

When Niles Paul returns from the ankle injury that ended his 2015 season, he may have another position switch ahead of him.

Redskins tight end Niles Paul spent the entirety of last season on injured reserve. He likely won’t be ready to return until late this summer when training camp begins, according to coach Jay Gruden. Yet it's where Paul plays when he puts the pads back on that might be the most anticipated part of his comeback.

Before going down in the preseason opener with a dislocated ankle, Paul was in line for a significant role behind or perhaps alongside starting tight end Jordan Reed. The converted wide receiver had packed on significant mass, and coaches were expecting a big leap in his production. 

“It was a big loss for us, not just for the tight end spot but [also] for special teams,” said Gruden to reporters Wednesday at the owners meetings in Boca Raton, Florida. “Niles is so versatile. He can play the fullback. He can move tight end and split them outside. He can do a little bit of everything.”

The fullback mention is intriguing because that position is unoccupied with free agent Darrel Young not expected back. The move would not only grant Kirk Cousins additional weaponry with an extra receiver that can be deployed out of the backfield, but would also lend the coaching staff more roster flexibility, an idea that Gruden was clearly excited about.

“I think that’s ideal,” Gruden said. “I think you can gain a spot on offense also. You can either dress a fourth tight end/fullback or dress three tight ends, one of those tight ends can play some fullback,” Gruden said. “Then you can open up another spot for either a sixth wide receiver or a special teams guy, maybe a third quarterback if you need one, a fourth running back or some defensive players [like] an extra corner.”

It’s a matter that Gruden has clearly given substantial thought to, judging by the list of possibilities he rattled off. Given his experience playing as a wide receiver through college and his rookie season with the Redskins, plus his more recent experience blocking at tight end, it’s certainly not far fetched to think that Paul could handle fullback duties.

As Gruden illustrated, dressing Paul as a fullback would allow the Redskins to be creative with the flexibility. Still, the logical roster void to fill would be the tight end spot that Paul hypothetically vacates, given the slew of injuries at the position. 

Logan Paulsen (toe) and Derek Carrier (knee) are both in the process of returning from season-ending injuries of their own. Though he stayed on the field for the majority of last season, Reed still represents a significant risk given his rich injury history. Gruden said that the Redskins wouldn’t have to add a tight end to the group, which also includes December addition Marcel Jensen, if they could feel assured about it staying healthy. Unfortunately, they can't. So, who would they add? Comments from general manager Scot McCloughan on Tuesday suggest Vernon Davis is still a strong possibility.

“Well I drafted him, first of all,” McCloughan said. “He’s from the area. He’s in great shape. We brought him in [for a visit on Thursday]. He’s a football player. It’s one of those guys that he’s never really been injured because his genetics are so incredible. He can block, he can run, he can catch and, all of a sudden, we add another weapon to the offense. And d-coordinator’s going to understand we’re coming at him.”

Paul still has significant rehabbing to do before he can get back on the field, let alone generate extra wiggle room on the roster by switching to tight end. He not only has to put in the cardio work to return to playing shape but also, ideally, regain the weight that he lost after surgery.The immobilizing injury cost Paul much, reportedly up to 25 pounds, of the work he put in.

“He was close to 255-60 pounds, I think, before he got hurt,” Gruden said. “He was strong as an ox."

Rehabbing and adding mass is, intuitively, a two-step process. Gruden admitted that doing both simultaneously is “probably not realistic with the ordinary human being.” He also stated that the qualifying adjective in that phrase—ordinary—might not apply to Paul.

“I wouldn’t put anything past Niles,” Gruden said. “He’s one of the hardest working guys we’ve got in the weight room. He loves it. So, I think it is realistic with Niles.”

Dan Roth is a freelance sportswriter and Breaking Burgundy contributor. Follow Dan on Twitter @DanRothDC.

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