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Why the NFL loves college basketball players

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Overcome with March Madness, Danny Kelly explains why so many NFL general managers are scouting college basketball games these days.

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Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Every single Antonio Gates touchdown in his entire career results in a network commentator reminding you that Gates played basketball in college. Every time Jimmy Graham catches a touchdown, someone mentions his basketball background. Same goes for Julius Thomas. I'm not here (hopefully) to parrot that line, but the fact is that, dammit, it's true. Gates' background as a Kent State baller has something to do with why he's caught so many touchdowns. Graham's skill set is in large part derived from his time playing hoops at Miami. Thomas' emergence as one of the top touchdown makers in the NFL is a result of some of the prowess he developed on the court at Portland State.

So, in the spirit of March Madness, let's look up from our brackets for a minute to talk about why so many former basketball players are making their mark on the NFL of late, and why the prevalence of that sport switch may increase going forward.

Exploiting market inefficiencies

Teams are constantly looking for "sleepers" or "diamonds in the rough," and have to go further and further away from the mainstream channels to find and exploit those market inefficiencies. The major conference pre-draft process is so regulated and organized these days that for the most part, all teams have the same data on players -- tape, measureables, etc. To gain a competitive advantage, we've seen teams scouting exceedingly small schools and signing free agent players from the CFL, AFL and other "farm" leagues. Just a few months ago, we saw the Niners sign a Rugby League player, Jarryd Hayne.

Another avenue that some general managers have taken is to recruit basketball players to their sport.

"We all have our avenues to find players," Chiefs GM John Dorsey said last April after signing University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee basketball player Demetrius Harris as an undrafted free agent in 2013. "There are different ways of doing it. It's my responsibility to the Kansas City Chiefs to do everything within our power to make sure we've got everything covered. We're going to do that because if you're not out there working, somebody else is and they'll find those guys. Everybody does such a thorough job now.

"In today's football, it's really hard because all 32 teams are doing their due diligence in terms of working to unearth talent. The objective is to get real players. Anybody can go and find obscure players, but they have to be able to play at the end of the day."

Now, these players must still go through the draft process, but with many of them, it's a pure projection game as to how they'll adapt to the NFL, and that's a lot more of a subjective process. I have the feeling that teams and scouting departments will refine their criteria for that switch in the coming years, and guys who meet certain specifications -- even outside athleticism -- will become more sought after, but for now, it's a crap shoot.

Still, it's already to the point where even if you're going to major program basketball games to scout potential players, you're going to be facing competition. "I always (scout) five or six basketball guys a year," said Dorsey. "We went to Portsmouth, Va., one year to evaluate 50 basketball players. Mid-majors is where you make your money on stuff like that because they're not in the pool for basketball."

Why basketball players?

If you've played both basketball and football you probably know that the two sports require different athletic attributes and skills. There are observable traits that translate well from the basketball court to the gridiron. One obvious one is jumping ability. And I'm not just talking about, "hey look, he can jump straight up and touch 35 inches above his head." That's impressive, of course, but doesn't capture functional athleticism, or something I refer to as "movement skills," which are much more subjective than speed metrics on paper.

So, for example -- this guy can run, jump, contort, concentrate, catch and slam a ball through the hoop with relative ease. This seems like an ability we could use in the red zone.

USC tight end (and basketball player) Jordan Cameron went into the draft process with 16 catches in his career at Southern Cal. Sixteen.

After he made a video with NBA star Blake Griffin, it caught scouts' eyes, and after a solid East-West Shrine Game week and an excellent Combine performance, he ended up getting drafted in the fourth round by the Browns.

Since then, Cameron has gone on to become successful in the league and recently signed a two-year, $15 million deal in Miami. He credits his background in basketball for some of the things he's able to do on the field.

I think a lot of it has to do with — in basketball, you use your body a lot, you're moving in space, you're bending, and I think it helps, it transitions well to football. [Antonio] Gates can stretch the field. You're seeing that with Jimmy [Graham] - he can go up and make plays, go up and get the ball at the high point. Hand-eye coordination, you grow up playing basketball, and it translates really well to football. You know, Julius Thomas, using his athletic ability to create mismatches.

Harris, now a tight end in Kansas City, would agree. The 23-year-old switched to football after playing a core role for University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's basketball team, signed with the Chiefs as an undrafted rookie and made their practice squad. He's put on some much needed bulk over the offseason and hopes to make an impact in 2015.

"It helps a lot," Harris said of his basketball background. "It's the reason for my ability to come in and out of the cuts, and in basketball, you've got to stay down and then go up the highest point you can (when rebounding)."

He especially loves using his height and jumping ability to go up high and catch passes. "I always used to catch (alley) oops," Harris said. "So I love those high balls."

Lions defensive end Larry Webster believes the skills required to play down low in the post for Bloomsburg University's basketball team helped him in his quick acclimation and development into football. Bloomsburg defensive line coach Bill Perkins agrees.

"It's similar," Perkins said. "In essence, you're trying to get off a block to an open area in basketball. He was able to use his body to that advantage. In all the plays I watched Larry, there were guys who could block him, but nobody ever got a lot of wood on him, just because he has a great sense of body positioning and awareness in space."

The classic basketball to football switch is from power forward to tight end, and that's probably the most common -- Gates, Graham, Thomas, Tony Gonzalez and Martellus Bennett come to mind. But, there are plenty of other examples -- Antwaan Randle El, Terrell Owens, Packers cornerback Demetri Goodson, Jaguars offensive tackle Jermey Parnell, Eagles outside linebacker Connor Barwin and Bucs receiver Vincent Jackson -- while Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has a famous highlight reel from his high school hoops days (his is not a switch so much as he just has a strong background in that sport). Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler also ended up choosing football over basketball after being a standout in both.

Miami Dolphins tight end Dion Sims and Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins both have backgrounds in basketball. Former Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice was the South Carolina Class AAAA basketball Player of the Year in 2002-03, averaging 18 points and seven boards a game while helping lead Gaffney High to a 28-0 record and state championship.

And of course, it's hard to forget future NFLers and former Tar Heel standouts Ronald Curry and Julius Peppers connecting for an alley-oop.

Now, a lot of people would say that basketball isn't a physical sport, especially compared to football, but there are a ton of attributes past jumping that go into playing the sport that translate to the gridiron.

Size

Size is obviously one of them. Most of the basketball-to-football transplants make the switch because some scouts see them catch a lob pass into the post at 6'5, 225 to 265 pounds with long limbs and think to themselves that this might come in handy at some point.

Movement skills

That takes us to the aforementioned movement skills. Most people who are 6'5 and over 250 pounds lack explosiveness, coordination, body control and speed. Threes and fours in basketball -- the best small forwards and power forwards -- tend to be tall, fluid, extremely coordinated, explosive and move with relative ease for a human of their stature. They jump out of the gym and can still cross up a player who is giving up five inches. A guy like LeBron James is the absolute gold standard for freakishness of nature, but players in this year's draft like Jean Sifrin and Dorial Green-Beckham have displayed athleticism on the basketball court that easily translates to the football field.

Green-Beckham's football game is more of a known commodity even with the suspension, but it's not really any wonder that a guy who can move like this on the hardwood could do some pretty sick things down in the red zone. Movement. Skills.

That's body control, hand-eye coordination, balance and, above all, explosiveness.

USC receiver Nelson Agholor did this on the court, and I guarantee scouts are seeing that and smiling.

Hand-eye coordination (handles)

Basketballs are round. Footballs are oblong. That said, basketball players handle the rock a lot and fine-tune hand-eye coordination excessively. This comes in handy for catching the football.

Timing, spacial awareness

Dennis Rodman wasn't the tallest dude ever. He wasn't the best athlete. He was and remains the game's best rebounder in history because he had an innate ability to position himself for rebounds, predict bounces and, more applicable to football, time his jumps to go up and get the ball. You see receivers mistime jumps for the ball all the time. It's a talent. It's about vision and concentration, and basketball players are doing it on every possession, with throngs of bodies around them. These skills help out in jump ball situations.

The ability to go up high, contort your body, rotate and still keep your balance to cross the goal line utilizes some of the physical skills Gates probably developed playing hoops.

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To me, this looks like Gates going up for a rebound.

Leverage

This works for both sides of the ball -- corners and defensive ends as well as receivers and tight ends. Basketball teaches players about leverage, especially when you're defending or boxing out a player who's bigger, stronger or taller than you. As Chubbs Peterson might say, it's all in the hips. Get the defender (or offensive player) on your hip and control him with your lower body. In football, you often see guys grappling with their arms and hands, but the guys who can use their ass to create room for themselves to go up and catch a ball have a great advantage.

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"Here's a stat I like," said Pete Carroll about Graham, right after the trade went through. "When he was in college playing basketball, he was the leading rebounder in the history of the University of Miami. That's a huge stat about toughness. You can't get rebounds year after year unless you compete and battle to get the ball. He shows that kind of desire and that toughness in his play and you can see it when he's carrying the football and he's trying to run over guys and leap over guys trying to make things happen."

Initiate contact, balance on contact

You ever see a basketball player drive to the basket, lean in to a defender strongly with his shoulder, then slightly fade away and lay it up with ease?

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Catching the ball in a crowd

This is just an obvious one.

Understanding of separation

Basketball is played on a small court. A lot of the game is about quickness and agility. You have to develop the ability to juke and fake and explode out of a three-point stance to get past your defender to the hoop.

And these two routes by Antonio Gates? Well, these look like a power forward slashing to the basket after juking and crossing a defender up.

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I'm not saying that non-basketball players can't do something like this -- they can, of course -- but playing hoops helps an athlete develop that ability to set up defenders before you even make your move. The jab-step drive, the stutter-step slash, the rocker step, the backdoor cut -- all of these basketball movements work in routes, too.

That said, in the game of football, where timing is the most essential element of offensive play, you can't be quite as free-wheeling as an AND1 Mixtape.

Another former Miami basketball player, Erik Swoope, was signed by the Colts this past year as an undrafted free agent. He's impressed coaches in Indy, but as Judy Battista reported:

Working against defenders in OTAs has helped Swoope understand the value of foot fakes and hand positioning, and what a difference doing it correctly makes. And when he watches the film of the former basketball players, he notices how much more structured their physical positioning -- where their feet and hands are -- gets as they spend more time in the NFL.

"I've been surprised at how specific it is, and then when you do it, I'm surprised at the difference it makes," Swoope said. "In basketball, everybody has a different shot form, or a different way they lay it in. In football, there has been, through history, proven ways that work. You emulate those very specifically."

There's a reason the basketball-to-football transition has an extremely high failure rate. Football is no picnic. But, when you have explosiveness like this?

Teams sit up and watch.

More from Battista:

Swoope went to coach Jim Larrañaga's office on March 14, the day after the Hurricanes' season ended with a loss to North Carolina State in the ACC Tournament, expecting to discuss his hopes of playing basketball overseas. It was to be a routine end-of-season meeting. Instead, Larrañaga surprised him with some news: The coach had received a call from the Denver Broncos, whose area scout, Nick Schiralli, had heard from his college connections about Swoope's athletic gifts.

"I was completely shocked," Swoope said of his conversation with Larrañaga. "When my coach presented the opportunity, I was almost in disbelief. They told me they were looking for guys 6-4, 6-5 who could catch the ball and run fast. It was almost a spit-balling idea."

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So enjoy March Madness, but if you're an NFL fan, keep in mind that scouts and GMs may be watching the same games. Difference is, they're looking for their next tight end, defensive back or pass rushing project.