*When the Redskins signed tight end Vernon Davis last week, it would have been easy for Niles Paul to be discouraged. Instead, he's treating it like just another challenge. *
It wasn't that long ago, but it's easy to forget. At the beginning of training camp last year, Niles Paul was named the starting tight end for the Washington Redskins, a designation he earned after signing a new contract, bulking up close to 30 pounds and impressing coaches during OTAs.
Then came the ankle injury during the first week of the preseason, then the move to the season-ending injured/reserve list, then the months of rest and rehab, sitting on his couch to watch his team turn its season around thanks in large part to Jordan Reed's breakout season.
And then, just recently, the signing of veteran tight end and two-time Pro Bowler Vernon Davis to the roster, making what was already a crowded room now feel like cramped quarters. With Logan Paulsen returning and Derek Carrier and Marcel Jensen remaining on the roster, it's surely added some more question marks to Paul's spot on the offensive depth chart, and his role in general.
"People forget quick and it's up to me," Paul said. "I understand that it's a business…I have full intentions of making people remember the type of player I am. I wasn't named a starter last year for no reason…my mentality every year is that I want to be the starter every year, and that's just facts. If you're a player and you come here and you don't think you can be a starter or you don't want to be a starter, this isn't the league for you."
It's evident that Paul carries a lot of pride, but he's also not stubborn.
A couple of weeks ago, at the annual NFL owners meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., head coach Jay Gruden acknowledged that losing Paul last season was difficult, both as a factor at tight end and special teams. With fullback Darrel Young no longer with the team, there remains a stronger possibility that Paul could play some snaps in the backfield if needed.
"Niles is so versatile," Gruden said. "He can play the fullback, he can move tight end and split them outside and he can do a little bit of everything, so I would think training camp would be the right spot for him."
"No matter what you label me as -- a special teams player or a fullback whatever -- I'm trying to be the best I can be at it and I'm going to go [all] out," Paul said. "When coach Gruden said that, people didn't understand that I was always the backup fullback when [Young] got hurt."
Check out images of veteran tight end Niles Paul during the 2015 offseason.
The potential move, even if for a few snaps a game, doesn't bother Paul. In fact, it gives him more confidence in his capabilities. If Gruden's comment sounded like an unintended demotion, Paul would have you believe otherwise.
"In this offense, the fullback can motion from the backfield, into the backfield or he can motion down to the line of scrimmage," Paul said. "If you watch our formations, we'll motion to the backfield, we'll motion right in front of the running back or next to the quarterback. So playing fullback is just an extension of tight end and a lot of tight ends in the league also play fullback for other teams. So if anything, it shows you the type of player I am to be able to take on so many roles, it shows you the value and it shows you what they think of me as a player."
Paul already made the switch from wide receiver to tight end while playing under Mike Shanahan, who asked him if he wanted to play safety, too. They eventually agreed on tight end, though Paul was open to anything, promising to put in total effort, which has also been seen on special teams in his five-year career.
"I don't feel like people understand what I mean when I say I'm a dog, like I put the team before myself, I lay my body on the line every time I'm out there," Paul said. "Yeah, maybe statistically I might not have always shown up statistically across the board, but when it comes to the passion I play with out there…"
The Davis signing only figures to push out more of it. Paul remembers watching Davis when he made his transition to tight end and said Davis was the type of player he wanted to emulate. "There is no point in being jealous," Paul said, and much of that has to do with his innate confidence in his constant adaptations.
Paul currently stands at 237 pounds and has been using the Redskins Park facility each day to climb back to his ideal weight, which hovers around 255. That's meant a lot of time in the weight room even while remaining loyal to cardio to help strengthen his ankle.
Through all of this, you can be sure he's thought about Davis and how it might impact him. But Paul chooses to see the addition as a motivator, not an obstacle. That's just his nature.
"Any real competitor flourishes when it comes to competition," Paul said. "People think that just because you signed [another tight end], that means it's the end of another player's career. It's not. Its hard work. You've got to come in here and earn your spot no matter who you are and that's the simple fact of it. I'm just excited to be able to work with him."