Olsen brings athleticism to TE position

When he wasn't dominating opponents as a Parade magazine All-American tight end at Wayne Hills (N.J.) High School, where he was regarded as one of the nation's premier prep performers during his 2002 senior season, Greg Olsen didn't lack for athletic diversions.

The top tight end prospect in this year's NFL draft, Olsen averaged 16.3 points and 8.0 rebounds as a power forward on the basketball team. For the track squad, Olsen competed in the javelin and shot put. Even on the football team, coached by his father, he moonlighted, playing defensive end and handling the deep-snapping chores.

So, what to make of Olsen's sports smorgasbord?

Well, the diverse background helped mold the University of Miami star into the lone tight end likely to be selected in the first round of next week's draft. In some ways, though, the competitive carousel that Olsen rode to the top of the 2007 tight end class makes him similar to many players at a position that is now defined by the convergence of skill sets it demands at the NFL level.

At no position, it seems, do players entering the draft have more well-rounded athletic résumés than at tight end. And at no other position is basketball such a common denominator.

"You look at the skills involved, especially with things like lateral movement or change of direction, and there's definitely a strong correlation between playing basketball and playing tight end," said Olsen, who will extend the impressive lineage of top-shelf tight ends produced by the Hurricanes. "From the strength involved, the jumping, to body positioning and control, there are similarities. Playing basketball at a pretty good high school level, in a state where there were strong programs, definitely helped make me a better tight end."

With the recent success of Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez, San Diego's Antonio Gates and recent Seattle free-agent acquisition Marcus Pollard, all of whom played hoops at the college level, the influence of basketball on the tight end position has certainly been profound. A guy who didn't play football at Kent State, and last played his senior year at Central High School in Detroit before signing with San Diego as an undrafted free agent in 2003, Gates is now the poster boy for the power forward turned NFL Pro Bowler.

"Teams are beating the basketball bushes now looking for the next Gates," Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "It used to be, when you walked in the office and someone had [an NCAA Tournament] game on the television, it was because he was keeping tabs on his brackets. Not now. They're looking for tight ends wearing tennis shoes."

Scouts don't have to dig deep this year for tight end prospects with basketball backgrounds.

Eight of the top 10 consensus tight end prospects in the 2007 talent pool played basketball at the high school level or beyond, most at the small forward or power forward positions.

Western Oregon's Kevin Boss, projected as a late-round selection, played two years of college basketball and led his team in blocks in 2005-06. Rodney Hannah of Houston also played two seasons, and his hoops résumé includes three double-digit rebound games. Minnesota's Matt Spaeth, the John Mackey Award winner as the nation's top tight end in 2006, averaged nearly 30 points and 13 rebounds in three seasons as a high school center.

Matt Herian of Nebraska, who is more a pumped-up wide receiver than a pure tight end, was a standout player on two state championship high school basketball teams. Oregon's Dante Rosario played on two state championship teams in high school. Delaware's Ben Patrick, who has the second-most career receptions of any of the tight ends in the '07 talent pool, used his hands to rip down rebounds before he did to snare footballs.

The Green Bay Packers earlier this month auditioned Wisconsin-La Crosse power forward Joe Werner, who hasn't played football since his sophomore year of high school. Werner ran in the 4.7s and posted a 36-inch vertical jump, and at 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, he could be on the radar screen as a free-agent candidate if he wants to pursue a football career.

It's still rare when a basketball player with little functional football experience makes the jump from the foul line to the goal line, but the correlation between the forward and tight end positions is pretty hard to ignore. And since tight end has historically been a tough slot to fill for many NFL teams, turning over every stone in an effort to unearth a potential tight end prospect might require showing up at the occasional basketball game.

"You aren't going to find them if you're not looking for them," one veteran scout said. "Of course, getting a guy like [Gates], there's a little luck involved, too."

It won't take a stroke of good fortune to identify Olsen as not only the top player in what is regarded as a very shallow 2007 tight end class, but as a versatile receiver who can quickly upgrade a team's midfield passing game. Olsen, 22, played three seasons for the Hurricanes after transferring from Notre Dame, and in his two years as the starter, he caught 71 passes for 940 yards and five touchdowns. For his career, Olsen finished with 87 receptions for 1,215 yards and six touchdowns in 33 games, including 26 starts.

Like most tight ends coming out of the college game, Olsen readily concedes he needs some work on his in-line blocking, but he is a willing worker and is improving in that area. Given his overall athleticism and movement skills, which really jumped out at the combine, there is little reason to believe he won't be an immediate factor in some team's passing attack.

At the combine, Olsen checked in at 6-5 7/8 and 254 pounds but was still clocked in the 40 in a sterling 4.51 seconds. How fast is that? Consider this: It is a better time than was turned in by 19 of the 42 wide receivers who ran at Indianapolis. He also turned in a vertical jump of 35½ inches and a standing long jump of 9 feet, 6 inches. At his campus pro day workout for scouts on March 3, Olsen improved his vertical jump to 37½ inches and his long jump to 9-11.

"You look at the skills involved, especially with things like lateral movement or change of direction, and there's definitely a strong correlation between playing basketball and playing tight end."
Greg Olsen

It doesn't hurt Olsen, either, that this is a very pedestrian talent pool compared to the tight end classes of the last several drafts. Of the 16 tight ends who ran at the combine, Olsen was the only one to record a 40 time of less than 4.7 seconds.

"He moves so well and he's got the kind of long frame where, even if he adds 15-20 pounds, which it looks like he can do, he'll still be plenty quick," Arizona first-year head coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "[He is] very smooth, very athletic, and he understands the position."

Olsen also understands the lineage he is being asked to uphold as a Miami tight end. He was a teammate of Kellen Winslow, has chatted with Jeremy Shockey, with whom he shares an agent, and worked out with Bubba Franks, all former Hurricanes star at the position.

"If you are going to play tight end," Olsen noted, "this is definitely the place to be."

And if a team is going to choose a tight end in the first round next week, it's a slam dunk that Olsen is the one who will be selected.

Given the preponderance of Cover 2 style defenses in the NFL, it's imperative to have a flexible, upfield tight end, who can flex off the line of scrimmage at times, move out into the slot and provide a passing game a midfield presence. The need for that kind of player definitely has fueled the re-emergence of the tight end position.

"The way teams play that [Cover 2] now, with the safeties so wide, it really takes away your vertical game unless you've got a tight end who can get deep," Olsen said. "I think I've shown that I can get up the middle, create some separation, and catch the ball. With my size and receiving skills, I would hope I could cause some matchup problems for defenses, and that some team sees that."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.