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NFL breakout players 2018: Panthers TE Chris Manhertz is more than just a former basketball player

A few years ago, the closest Manhertz had come to playing football was “Madden.” Now he’s an NFL tight end.

Minnesota Vikings v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Chris Manhertz said he had never played organized football until he decided to try out for the Buffalo Bills in 2015 following his time in college at Canisius, where he was a captain of the basketball team. It’s no wonder, then, that he is still far from a finished product on the field.

However, you can’t coach a guy to be 6’6, 250+ pounds, and athletic, either. There was pretty much nothing but upside for Buffalo in giving him a tryout, but things didn’t end up working out there and he was cut.

The Bills weren’t the only team to do the math on Manhertz’s potential.

He ended up on the Saints’ practice squad that same year and eventually worked his way onto the active roster to start the 2016 season. Unfortunately for him, the Saints ended up releasing Manhertz, but then the Panthers claimed him and Manhertz was active in four of the last 10 games that season. He even made his first career catch in a Week 16 loss to the Falcons, and it appeared the third team he played for would be the charm for the former basketball player.

Last season, Manhertz earned the third-team tight end spot on Carolina’s depth chart behind All-Pro Greg Olsen and his longtime backup, Ed Dickson. He actually ended up starting in four games and was active for all 16 of them in the regular season before going on IR before the playoffs started. In what was technically his second season in the NFL, Manhertz started to look a lot more like a legit NFL tight end in the way he played rather than just in how he looked walking around in pads.

One of the things I look closely at when guys go from basketball to football is how they handle the physicality that comes with it. And I’m not taking about taking hits when they try to catch the ball. That’s something they can usually see coming and adjust accordingly. I’m talking about trying to play in the trenches when you’ve never done it before.

It is one thing to get fouled a few times during the course of a game, and quite another to have to take on a defensive lineman one-on-one dozens of times a day in practice and then have to go out and do it full speed, dozens more times, during the game.

You can be tall and strong, but football can humble you, man.

You wake up some days wondering how you will walk from your bed to the bathroom to pee, and you still have to go out and practice that day.

With Manhertz, he has made a remarkable transition as a blocker after doing it for the first time just a few years ago. He looks like an extra offensive lineman out there at times, just driving dudes off the line of scrimmage and finishing off blocks. It’s good that he has dedicated himself to that part of his game, too, considering he only saw four balls thrown to him last season. If he sucked at blocking, Manhertz probably wouldn’t have seen any playing time at all up until now.

At the same time, even in limited opportunities, you could start to see some potential in Manhertz as an option in the passing game. He does have that basketball background so he knows how to box out defenders, and with his height he can go up and make catches that some other guys can’t. He also has good size on him so he should be able to withstand big hits, especially with how physical he is as a blocker. Now it’s just a matter of him getting more opportunities and more targets to show what he can do.

It just so happens Dickson signed with Seattle this spring, which opens up the backup position behind Olsen. It won’t be easy for Manhertz to win the job considering the fact that he is missing time during training camp dealing with a foot injury and that the Panthers invested a fourth-round pick this past April in another tight end, Ian Thomas. However, after seeing how quickly Manhertz has turned himself into an NFL tight end and how well he can block, I wouldn’t bet against him.

If he can come back before the season to nail down his role as the primary backup to Olsen, and if he can stay healthy, I don’t think there’s any question Manhertz will have a breakout season this year. Even if he “only” catches 20 balls, that would be 10 times his career high for a season.

But you really can’t judge Manhertz’s breakout in just statistics.

For a guy who said in 2015 that the closest he had come to playing football before then was playing Madden, being a second-string NFL tight end three years later is quite an accomplishment in and of itself.

Even if Manhertz falls back to third string because of the injury, I expect we will still see him in the lineup a lot to block in the running game, and he should still get enough targets to far outdo his two receptions last season. It may not seem like a lot to you, but it would still be impressive as hell to me, regardless.

Confidence level: Moderate