When it comes to NFL prospects, James Casey is one of a kind
Rice's Casey finished second in the nation with 111 catches last season
He is considered one of the top five tight end prospects in this year's draft
He played four years of minor league baseball and will turn 25 in September
No matter how much information teams gather, they still have a hard time figuring out how a college player's skills will translate into the NFL. Every year the first round is loaded with busts, while gems fall to the draft's second day. In 2009 perhaps no prospect is harder to figure out than Rice tight end James Casey.
He's not a tight end in the traditional sense. He has little blocking experience.
He would have likely played quarterback if he had returned to Rice for his junior season.
He played seven positions in one game as a freshman.
He will turn 25 in September.
He played four years of minor league baseball.
Rice didn't recruit him. He recruited them.
For an old-school offensive coach, Casey's oddities might be a deal-breaker. For a more open-minded staff, they may be his greatest strength. A closer look at Casey reveals a thoroughly unique prospect that could be hitting the NFL at exactly the right time.
The rise of spread tight ends
No team throws the ball more than Rice, which helps explain Casey's 111 receptions for 1,329 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2008. Casey was too busy catching the ball to block in the Owls' spread offense. Turns out he's not alone. Most of the top tight end prospects in this year's draft class didn't block out of a three-point stance and won't necessarily have to do so at the next level.
"The spread offense in college makes it harder for the NFL to define what a kid may be at the next level," NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock says. "Tight end has been impacted as much or more than any other position. Outside of Oklahoma State's Brandon Petigrew, who's the No. 1 tight end in the country, none of the top prospects have shown they can block."
Casey falls into a group of catch-first tight ends that includes South Carolina's Jared Cook, Southern Miss' Shawn Nelson, Florida's Cornelius Ingram, Missouri's Chase Coffman and Wisconsin's Travis Beckham. They all project as "move" tight ends or H-backs, who can line up in various places in the offense to create mismatches. None of them came close to matching Casey's numbers at Rice.
"Casey might have the best ball skills of anyone at his position," Mayock says. "Some people catch the ball naturally. Other people fight it. He catches the ball very naturally. The real value of this kid is getting him lined up with linebackers and safeties in the pass game."
Casey was originally recruited to play linebacker, and then was moved to defensive end, quarterback and eventually tight end/H-back. Rice's coaching staff was surprised by his pass-catching ability, and revamped their offense to feature Casey in 2008.
"He's got the greatest hands I've ever seen," Rice coach David Bailiff says. "I can't tell you how many catches I've seen him make that he shouldn't have."
Casey ran a 4.74 40 at the combine and doesn't have the speed to be a downfield threat like the Colts' Dallas Clark, but he can make the necessary plays in a ball-control passing offense. Rice frequently lined Casey up in the slot and ran bubble screens and other short and intermediate plays to get the ball in his hands. With his sure hands he should help an offense move the chains even if he's not going to break off many long touchdowns.
"Running down the middle of the field into a cover two, catching the ball, having a safety hit you and still hold on to the ball," Casey says. "That may be what I do best."