The entire football world knows Reggie Bush. He is the most elusive player in the draft. He is the most promising player to come into the draft since the turn of the millennium. He is constantly compared to Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders for his effortless change of direction and vision of the football field. All of this stems from his ability as a runner. It all comes from the fact that you hold your breath every time Reggie Bush touches the ball, because you know he can score at any time.
What is being overlooked in regard to Bush is his catching ability. Some RBs in the league have good hands, but the NFL hasn’t seen a back with the receiving potential of Reggie Bush. Tailbacks with good hands usually catch flankers, flats, curls, and screens and can generate yards. But no RB in the NFL has been used consistently to run crossing routes, posts, corners, slants, and go routes. Reggie Bush has the ability to essentially be a receiver with his catching, speed, and ability to adjust to the ball while it’s in the air. He can be slotted as a WR regularly, something the NFL has never seen from a RB. It is in this fashion that Reggie Bush could become a transcending player at his position, revolutionizing the RB position in the NFL by being a true RB/WR dual weapon. He could be a consistent 1000 yards rushing/1000 yards receiving guy, which would make him one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in league history. He will create a new prototype of player at his position and change the way his position is used by offensive coordinators. In this fashion, Reggie Bush will become the next Antonio Gates.
Antonio Gates was an experiment. He was one of those “let’s see if this’ll work” players when the Chargers decided to sign him in 2002. He was a 6’4 basketball player at Kent St. who someone in the Chargers organization thought might be able to play TE in the NFL. They took him in and sat him for a year in order for him to learn the position and get a feel for the NFL game. He got some touches during his second year and showed some promise. Then in 2004, Gates exploded onto the scene. He had 81 receptions for 964 yards and 13 TDs. This production across the board had never been seen from the TE position in the NFL. He was a big target inside the red zone and was a talented receiver across the field. He was a TE running WR routes and beating corners to the ball. He was a TE with a 40-inch vertical. His burst onto the scene made other offensive coordinators think and helped to create a new place in the NFL for a TE position that was dying out. Antonio Gates became a transcending NFL player. In just one year, he changed the way a position was looked at forever.
Of course, for every transcending, revolutionary player like Gates there was a shadow beforehand. In Gates’ case it was Kansas City Chiefs TE Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez was a basketball player as well but played football in college. He was the receiving TE in the WR sense. He had the ability to out-jump people in the red zone. Year after year he was the best receiver on the Chiefs. He was a solid receiver, but didn’t have the explosiveness and sheer athleticism which Gates has brought to the NFL. Gonzalez was and still is one of the best catching TEs in the game, but he didn’t change his position. He was just an exception to the rule for many years.
The success of Antonio Gates has created a new fit for TEs in the NFL. Last year, in the year after Gates’ explosion, 11 TEs had at least 55 receptions. In 2004, there were 7. Different players became focal points of the passing offense. There was a strong transition from using TEs as just an extension of the offensive line into using a TE as a pass option. Now solid catching TEs are important parts of the passing game for half of the teams in the league. The number of TEs with 55+ catches will easily increase next year as guys like Heath Miller in Pittsburgh, Ben Troupe in Tennessee, Alex Smith in Tampa Bay, Dallas Clark in Indianapolis, and Ben Watson in New England take on bigger roles. The number could easily reach 18 next year. For further proof of the change of the TE, look at the upcoming draft. The top TEs are Vernon Davis of Louisville, Anthony Fasano of Notre Dame, Leonard Pope of Georgia, and Marcedes Lewis of UCLA. All four of them were big time receiving targets in college. Vernon Davis, with his athleticism, is basically a great blocking WR. Pope, at 6’7” is a big target who can use his body to create plays downfield. Gates has made receiving an intricate part of being a TE at the NFL level.
The fact that Gates was a crossover athlete – playing basketball in college but playing football in the NFL, has made other teams look at other basketball players. Julius Peppers, who played basketball in college, was used by the Panthers last year in the red zone as a TE in some situations. Last year, the Denver Broncos signed Wesley Duke, a basketball player from Mercer who has great athleticism and vertical jumping ability. He got some playing time late in the year when the Broncos reached the red zone. There are now two basketball players who played in the NCAA tournament who could be on an NFL roster a month from now. Ed Nelson, a 6’6” forward from UConn, has been looked at as a future NFL TE. He has a football frame and has the toughness needed to succeed in the NFL. One of the best players in the entire tournament and the cornerstone of the George Mason miracle run, 6’7” forward Jai Lewis, had NFL scouts watching him in Indianapolis during the tournament. Several teams have already expressed interest in possibly signing him, and he might be drafted despite not playing football in college. Both Nelson and Lewis are scheduled to have individual pro-day type workouts within the next two weeks. There are probably one or two other basketball players this year who are being looked at. Without the emergence of Antonio Gates, Nelson and Lewis wouldn’t be future NFL players.
Now Reggie Bush can create a similar situation if he delivers on his potential as a receiver. If he turns into a dual threat, as an elusive runner and as a sharp cutting, homerun receiver he will change the way coordinators evaluate RBs, just as Gates has changed the evaluation of TEs. The ability to catch the football as a RB will become an essential part of their arsenal. Don’t be surprised if RBs are running WR drills at the combine within the next five years. Of course, there were solid receiving backs before Bush. Walter Payton and Marshall Faulk had some of the best hands to touch a football. In this football generation, the guy to “get the ball rolling” is Eagles RB Brian Westbrook. He’s the best receiver on the Eagles. But the receiving tailback is still looked at as a nice addition, as a novelty, and not as a necessity. Last season there were only three RBs with 50+ receptions. The possible success of Reggie Bush could make this a key attribute to the use of a RB in the NFL. Just like Antonio Gates transformed the receiving, route-running TE from a one man occurrence into an NFL staple, Bush could do the same to the pass-catching RB. If Bush is a great WR in the NFL, the RB lined up in the slot or on the outside will become a standard formation in the NFL, and not just in desperate Hail-Mary 5 WR sets.
If Bush goes to the Texans, it’s almost a formality for his success. With WR Andre Johnson on one side and WR Eric Moulds as a 2nd option, Bush will exploit mismatches and torch defenses. He will raise the eyebrows of scouts and offensive coordinators across the NFL.
And then the RB revolution will begin.
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Fri 04/14/06, 9:58 pm EST