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Versatile Big Men Revolutionized the NBA. Meet the NFL Draft Prospects Who Could Change Football.

From Darnell Washington to Bijan Robinson to Anthony Richardson, this NFL draft class is full of prospects who shatter positional stereotypes

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA has been taken over by unicorns. Philadelphia’s 7-foot center, Joel Embiid, takes and makes 3-pointers at a better rate than Michael Jordan. Milwaukee’s 7-footer Giannis Antetokounmpo led the NBA in fast-break points this season. The NBA’s back-to-back MVP, the 6-foot-11 Nikola Jokic, is averaging 9.8 assists per game this season, more than point guard Jason Kidd averaged in his career. Centers used to guard the rim. They still do, but now they also shoot, pass, and run with the game’s best. And the trend of big men learning better skills is accelerating. This year’s NBA draft features Victor Wembanyama, the best basketball prospect since LeBron James. Wembanyama is 7-foot-3 and guards the rim like a future Defensive Player of the Year but also has a silky—and unblockable—3-point shot. My colleague Kevin O’Connor dubbed him “Gen Z Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.”

There might not be a Victor Wembanyama in this year’s NFL draft, but there are tight ends the size of tackles, running backs who catch like receivers, and quarterbacks faster than safeties and bigger than linebackers. We may be cresting on a wave of athletes with different skill sets who could change football.

If you’ve ever wondered what LeBron James would have looked like as a tight end, Darnell Washington is about as close as you’ll get. Washington, the tight end for the undefeated champion Georgia Bulldogs, is about as big as a tight end can be. At 6-foot-7 and 264 pounds, Washington ran the 40-yard dash in 4.64 seconds—just .15 seconds slower than the average time for running backs, players who are significantly shorter and lighter. Washington’s wingspan is almost identical to LeBron’s—7 feet—and is the largest ever for a tight end measured at the NFL’s scouting combine. Washington’s hands, which measure at 11 inches, are the second biggest ever at his position at the combine and are almost as big as Shaquille O’Neal’s. (As my colleague Ben Solak likes to say, take a sheet of printer paper: That is how big Darnell Washington’s hands are.) Twenty years ago, Washington would have been developed as an offensive tackle. Instead, he will be perhaps the biggest target in NFL history.

Washington is big, but the big man can also move. Accounting for Washington’s size, his 40-yard dash speed score ranks in the 96th percentile among tight ends. His short shuttle time was the best among all tight ends at the combine even though he was also the largest tight end at the combine. But Washington is far more impressive when he has pads on. Just watch this catch against Oregon. He plays football the way the Joker drives the 18-wheeler in The Dark Knight.

He has a marvelous habit of jumping over every cornerback he encounters, because no cornerback can try to tackle him upright. Yet his blocking might be more fun than his receiving. Watch him smash this defensive end like the Hulk smashes Loki. Technique-wise, his blocking needs work. Vibes-wise, his blocking is flawless.

Of all the amazing things about Washington, the wildest is that he might not be the best tight end on his own college football team. Georgia’s leading receiver last year was its other tight end, Brock Bowers, who ranked fourth among all players, not just tight ends, in the SEC in catches and receiving yards and won the John Mackey Award as college football’s most outstanding tight end. But “tight end” doesn’t really describe what Bowers does for Georgia’s offense. Bowers, listed at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, can do anything. Here’s the second play of Georgia’s game against Kent State in September. Bowers goes in motion, takes a handoff on a jet sweep, and runs 75 yards for a touchdown:

If he looks like a running back in that clip, it’s probably because he sometimes played that position in high school. At Georgia last year, he averaged 12 yards per carry and ran for three touchdowns. He’s scored 24 total touchdowns in his two seasons at Georgia—and five of them have gone for 70 or more yards. But Bowers isn’t just fast—he is strong, too. Here’s Bowers treating a third of Alabama’s defense like a wrecking ball to score in the SEC championship game in December 2021:

“They’ve got a tight end that’s kind of like a Swiss Army knife,” TCU defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie said about Bowers in January before Georgia throttled TCU in the national championship game. “I mean, he can do it all.” TCU head coach Sonny Dykes took it a step further and compared the Georgia duo of Bowers and Washington to Dykes’s legendary former pupil at Arizona State, Rob Gronkowski.

“Most people, when they go 12 [personnel, with one running back and two tight ends], they’re taking two good players off the field and putting two average players on the field,” Dykes said before the Georgia game. “Well, Georgia certainly is the exception to that. Their tight ends are exceptional. … Like Rob, they’re wide receivers that are 270 pounds and can block.”

Bowers is not eligible for the draft until 2024. But this year’s tight end class beyond Washington is still special. Utah’s Dalton Kincaid is a wide receiver in a tight end’s body, though injuries have prevented him from athletic testing. Oregon State’s Luke Musgrave is 6-foot-6 and 253 pounds and ran a 4.61 40-yard dash, putting him in the 94th percentile among tight ends in weight-adjusted speed. Old Dominion’s Zack Kuntz is an inch taller and two pounds heavier than Musgrave and ran even faster, with a 4.55 40-yard dash. And that doesn’t include more traditional tight ends like Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer, perhaps the best Fighting Irish tight end ever at a school known for tight ends, or South Dakota State’s Tucker Kraft, who might have been the top tight end had he been in last year’s draft but is merely a borderline top-five guy this year. “The tight end group,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said on a conference call before the combine, “is the best I’ve seen in the last 10 years.”

More may be on the way. “More coaches at the high school level are more inclined to start messing around with a tight end,” former Texas high school football coach and author of the MatchQuarters Substack Cody Alexander said. “Instead of saying, ‘Well, we got this big kid, he’ll grow into a tackle here eventually, or we got this big basketball kid, just line him up at X and we’ll throw fade routes.’ They’re like, ‘Hey, what if we taught him how to block a little bit?’”

At running back, this year’s draft may have the best prospect in 15 years. Texas’s Bijan Robinson has everything: speed, size, burst, balance, vision, power, acceleration, agility. When he gets his first Madden rating, it’ll almost certainly be a 90 or higher. He does not have Saquon Barkley’s 93-level explosiveness, but his vision and patience are better.

Some running backs are frantic. Robinson is oddly serene. He runs as if he’s already seen the play unfold and rewound time to dance between defenders like raindrops. “More than any other back I can remember studying,” my colleague Danny Kelly wrote in The Ringer’s NFL Draft Guide, “Robinson’s tape is littered with defenders running into each other and toppling over in cartoonish attempts to tackle him.”

Robinson wears no. 5 in honor of Reggie Bush. He told Sports Illustrated he watches Barry Sanders videos “every other day.” “I’m always trying to mimic his moves,” Robinson said. But Robinson is unlikely to be drafted as high as his idols. Sanders went third in 1989. Bush was considered a lock to go no. 1 overall to the Texans in 2006, and it was a shock when he fell to no. 2 to the Saints. But for all of Robinson’s superlatives, it would be stunning if he was selected in the top five this year. It will be controversial if he’s even taken in the top 10. Barkley, who was taken second by the Giants in 2018, was the last back to be selected in the top 10. No running back has gone higher than no. 24 since. Last year, no running backs were selected in the first round at all, yet another sign of how the position’s value has plummeted over the past decade as teams rely more on passing to gain yards. It’s become a position where teams have found they can save money while investing resources elsewhere on the roster. On average, running backs are paid less than every position except punter and long snapper. Even kickers average a higher salary, according to Spotrac. Teams that skimp at running back tend to be rewarded. No Super Bowl–winning team has paid its leading rusher more than $2.5 million since 2013. The average salary of the leading rusher on the past 14 Super Bowl teams is $1.4 million.

If there is a running back who could convince teams to buck those trends, Robinson might be it—not just for the skills he brings as a runner, but for his versatility as a receiver. Robinson had 60 catches for 805 yards and eight touchdowns as a receiver in college. His hands are excellent. Robinson can also line up out wide. Here he is against Texas Tech on the first play of the game motioning out of the backfield and into the slot receiver spot. He runs a deep route, comes back toward the sideline, and catches a deep first down while dragging his toes along the sideline:

He’s also got the skills to beat cornerbacks on in-breaking routes from the slot:

“I probably made a couple of receivers on our team mad last season,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian told NBC’s Peter King this month, “but [Robinson] had the best hands on our team.”

Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs, the betting favorite to be the second running back taken in this draft, is also a prolific receiver, with 1,217 receiving yards across three years in college. We have seen running backs who can split out into the slot recently, such as Christian McCaffrey. Their impact receiving out of the backfield might be even more influential. And as more backs grew up watching McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara clips on YouTube, and more tailbacks are participating in 7-on-7 passing camps in high school, we could see far more skilled and versatile backs in the NFL pipeline. In fact, Penn State wide receiver Parker Washington has earned intrigue from at least one NFL team that believes he could be a slot receiver capable of moonlighting as a running back, à la Deebo Samuel, according to ESPN’s Todd McShay.

“A lot of running backs are adding value,” McShay said on a media conference call this week, “by being a running back that can play in the slot.”

We’re not just getting more running backs who can catch, but also more quarterbacks who can run. Last year NFL teams averaged 4.5 yards per carry, the highest mark since the stat was first tracked in 1932, and that efficiency was largely because of how effective quarterbacks have been in the running game. Chicago’s Justin Fields led the NFL with 7.1 yards per carry and quietly had the second most rushing yards in a single season for a QB, with 1,143. (Fields ran a 40-yard dash almost as fast as his new no. 1 receiver, D.J. Moore, despite being 3 inches taller and almost 20 pounds heavier.) Buffalo’s Josh Allen ran for 55 first downs last year, more than Buffalo running back Devin Singletary. Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts had 13 rushing touchdowns, tied for the second-highest mark in the league. In July 2019, Ravens coach John Harbaugh predicted that the Lamar Jackson–led offense they were creating would change the kinds of quarterbacks the league chased. For decades, Joe Montana and Bill Walsh had reigned as the gold standard of quarterbacking and offense, but finally that was starting to change.

“We’ve all been chasing that model, pretty much, trying to find that quarterback, find that rhythm, and all the things that go with that offense, and it really hasn’t changed too much,” Harbaugh said in 2019. “What’s the next era going to be? Well, we’re about to find out.”

Hurts and Fields entered the NFL after Harbaugh’s prescient comment. Now, it’s nearly Anthony Richardson’s turn. The Florida quarterback, who calls himself “Cam Jackson” (a reference to his playing like a combo of the two QBs he grew up watching, Cam Newton and Jackson), is perhaps the most athletic QB prospect ever. At 6-foot-4 and 244 pounds, Richardson ran a 40-yard dash essentially as fast as Robert Griffin III despite being 2 inches taller and 20 pounds heavier. He posted the best vertical jump and best broad jump for a QB, metrics that when taken together provide evaluators insight into a player’s explosiveness. His chart on Mockdraftable, which visualizes percentiles for combine testing within position groups, is nearly a solid octagon:

Defenders are being forced to match these offensive trends, either with ridiculous athleticism or with remarkable versatility. Georgia edge rusher Nolan Smith is expected to be a first-rounder, but he too is a historical outlier who is furthering evolution at his position. He is wildly fast for an outside linebacker—99th percentile speed with a 4.39 40-yard dash—but he’s also in the 2nd percentile for weight at the position, at just 238 pounds.

McShay says the trends reflected by players like Smith, an edge rusher, also applies to other positions along the defense.

“With so many teams spreading you out with three- or four-receiver sets, you’ve got to have guys at linebacker and at safety that can stay on the field no matter what the personnel package is,” McShay said. “That’s why you’re seeing more long, fast, athletic off-the-ball linebackers versus the thumpers and the big, physical guys. [Thumping] is not the game today. It’s slip, tackle, sideline to sideline, chase, pursue, cover. Those are the skills we’re looking for.”

The perfect example of this modern positionless defender is Alabama defensive back Brian Branch. Branch is listed as a cornerback by the NFL in its official draft guides, but McShay views him as a safety. Neither designation seems quite right. At Alabama, his real role was the “star” of the defense, guarding players as the nickel defender, à la former Bama star and current Steelers playmaker Minkah Fitzpatrick. But Branch does not have Fitzpatrick’s athleticism. Branch is small by NFL standards, at just 6 feet and 190 pounds, and while he is not slow, he is not particularly fast. Yet he makes up for his lack of size with versatility. He can guard the slot receiver, play man coverage or drop zone, drop back at safety, and quarterback the defense. As draft expert Dane Brugler noted at The Athletic, Branch was the only defender among the 129 FBS teams to have 90-plus tackles, 14.0-plus tackles for loss, and at least two interceptions.

“I think my versatility is a great selling point in the NFL,” Branch told reporters at the combine. “Letting them know wherever they need me, I can play. Being able to go out there and work at it, I feel like it enhances my game in the long run.”

Being a jack-of-all-trades but master of none may be the road map for how players add value without outlier speed or size. As offenses increasingly include more versatile skill position players—the roles that players like Darnell Washington and Bijan Robinson will eventually play—defenders who might be elite at one skill but also have a glaring weakness are vulnerable and will have to be subbed in and out.

“You’ve got to be able to do multiple things now as a football player,” McShay said. “It’s an expectation, not a want anymore.”

The NFL only needs to look to the NBA to see how versatile, almost-positionless players can change the game. The NBA’s skills-at-scale revolution has so thoroughly altered the sport that the league’s new collective bargaining agreement removed official position designations from their All-NBA team awards. Gone are the days when two guards, two forwards, and a center make the All-NBA squad. Now it’s just five guys, positions be damned. Basketball is in a positional identity renaissance. And the same themes that altered the NBA are nascent in football too.

The NFL might not quite be ready to abandon position designations like the NBA. But the talent pool is changing, and we can already see the next wave of NFL talent cresting. USC’s Caleb Williams is a phenom QB prospect for his arm and his legs. And of course, Bowers will likely declare for the 2024 draft too. He’ll be listed as a tight end, but we’ll see what position he truly plays for Georgia in 2023. Last year, according to The Athletic, a reporter asked Bowers what position he played. “I don’t know, I guess a tight end,” Bowers said. “But I just line up wherever they tell me.”