As he headed into his first potential offseason as an unrestricted free agent in the NFL, tight end Niles Paul knew there would be a few teams interested in his services both on offense and on special teams.
But before listening to any of those offers with the start of free agency next week, Paul said it was important to remain loyal to the Washington Redskins, the team that drafted him in the fifth round in the 2011 NFL Draft.
That loyalty paid off on Friday, as the team announced it had re-signed the Nebraska product, who is coming off a career year in 2014. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
“I’m excited,” Paul told host Larry Michael Friday on “Redskins Nation.” “I’m excited to be back. This is home.”
Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said last season that he believed Paul was “one of the most improved players on this team.”
“Not just in the passing game but in the running game,” Gruden said. “He has done an outstanding job blocking, and not to mention he is one of Coach [Ben] Kotwica’s core guys on special teams. So he has really been a very active player for us, a very valuable player for us, very much improved in the passing game as far as route running, route definition.”
Making the transition
Paul – an All-Big 12 Conference second team wide receiver and kick returner at Nebraska – was tasked with switching to tight end after his rookie season with the Redskins.
While both positions certainly require pass-catching abilities, tight ends often go against defensive linemen and linebackers that are much larger than them.
The move has, over time, paid off for Paul, 25, who set career highs across the board in 2014, accumulating more than 500 receiving yards for the first time, while also scoring his first touchdown since the 2012 season.
But Paul said his transition from wide receiver to tight end certainly hasn’t been easy.
The Omaha, Neb., native said he bulked up a little too much during the 2013 season, and used the offseason to head into 2014 at a more comfortable playing weight.
“Two years ago I put on a lot of unhealthy weight on and I was like 245 and I didn’t like how I felt at that,” Paul said. “So, I dropped down and this year and I’ve maintained being around 236 pounds and my body fat is back to where it is normally at which is around seven percent.”
With comfort came immediate success for Paul, who became a valuable commodity for the Redskins’ offense after starting tight end Jordan Reed went down with a hamstring injury seven plays into their 2014 season opener against the Houston Texans.
In that game, Paul posted then-career bests in receptions (four), receiving yards (86) and long reception (48 yards), and upstaged that performance the next week in a win against the Jacksonville Jaguars, catching eight passes for 99 yards and a touchdown – his first since 2012.
“I am happy for this opportunity to play,” Paul said after that performance. “But, it’s just important that I stay humble and keep doing what I have been doing, which is working hard and grinding it out through practice, and [tight ends] coach Wes Phillips knows it.”
Paul continued to be a key part of the offense as Reed slowly worked his way back into the lineup. In Week 4 against the New York Giants, he became the first Redskins right end since Chris Cooley in 2007 to record at least 60 receiving yards in four consecutive games, and he logged a career-best 50-yard reception Week 7 against the Tennessee Titans, the longest for a Washington tight end since a 71-yard Fred Davis scamper in 2010.
Paul said he’s hoping to see his success carry over into the 2015 season and beyond.
“I think last year was the first year I really got to show what I was capable of as a player and become an important part of this offense,” he told Michael on Friday. “I think, just carrying over to next year, now that the coaches know what I’m capable of, it’ll create more opportunities for me in this offense.”
Reed also benefited from Paul’s ascension, catching 49 passes for 461 yards in the 10 games after his return.
“To pair him with Niles, like you said, in two-tight end sets, if they stay in their base people, safety gets one of them and one of them gets paired up with a linebacker if they want to play them man-to-man,” Gruden said of Reed. “Two good matchups, then you throw DeSean [Jackson] and Pierre [Garçon] out there, it is a dream scenario. But then when you go three wide receivers and one tight end, you bring Andre [Roberts] in there, you have pretty good matchups across the board.”
Paul’s new contract with the Redskins means the team is set to return eight of its top 10 receivers from a season ago. Only running back Roy Helu Jr. (42 receptions for 477 yards and two touchdowns) and Santana Moss (10 receptions for 116 yards) are now set to become free agents next week.