To date they have stuck to basketball, but this offseason they deviated from the plan a little, and signed rugby international Hayden Smith to play tight end. Usually US rugby players are comprised of people that knew they would never carve a career from football, players do not tend to go in the opposite direction.
So what is Smith likely to have learned and developed playing rugby at a high level that might make him a suitable tight end in the NFL?
The first and most obvious thing that Smith has going for him is raw athletic talent. He played basketball in college before taking up rugby. Without meeting the NFL prerequisites for athleticism, Smith wouldn’t have a hope, but from his reported 4.75 40 time and his size, he qualifies. That athleticism is the reason that he was able to ascend rapidly in the rugby world to being a significant member of the US national team, but also (and perhaps more importantly), become a valuable squad player for Saracens rugby club of the English Premier division. Though this isn’t the best rugby league in the world, it isn’t far from that standard; a serious level of competition and not one in which raw players can just walk in and earn a spot. Smith had the talent to force his way into the Saracens setup and the national lineup at lock forward.
So what the hell is a lock forward exactly? A pair of lock forwards form the second row of a rugby scrum. They need to be amongst the strongest players on the field because they provide much of the drive in a scrum, which is easily the most well-known aspect of rugby. It’s a mechanism by which the game is re-started after certain infractions or other dead-ball situations, and is in itself is a crucial part of the game, allowing teams to secure possession and distribute the ball to their smaller, quicker, backs–the players that do much of the damage in the open field. The scrum is by no means the defining characteristic of rugby anymore, but it remains a key element to the game. As if to prove the point, the recent Six Nations encounter between Ireland and England got out of control and became a blowout when England began to destroy the Irish scrum. Locks are vital components to the strength of a scrum and they need to have an impressive base of power and leg-drive.
The position also demands height (almost all are at least 6-foot-6), because they are usually the primary targets in the lineout–rugby’s answer to the tip-off in basketball, where the ball is thrown in from the sideline to re-start the game if it goes out of bounds. Traditionally, the ball is thrown in, and one player is lifted by a pair of teammates to catch it at its highest point. From there, that player either secures the ball and returns to the ground where the rest of the forwards start to drive him forward, or he executes a deft pass on the way down to start the ball moving out to the backs again. Players at this position need to be able to high-point the ball, catch it reliably, and often secure possession in traffic both mid-air, and once they hit the ground.
Locks will also be expected to carry the ball on occasion and are usually involved around the breakdown as one of the defenders most likely to tackle anything that develops quickly from the bottom of the ruck (the pile of bodies that amasses at the end of a tackle, which, in rugby, does not stop the game). Both of these are significant facets of the position, but the locks won’t be close to the best ballcarriers on their teams and it’s certainly not the biggest thing to focus on with Smith.
Tight End Translation
Tight end is a position in flux at the NFL level. Once considered little more than a sixth lineman who was eligible to catch short passes, the position has evolved into true difference-makers on offense. Players like Aaron Hernandez, Jared Cook, Jermichael Finley have become super-sized wide receivers more than powerful in-line blockers, and the best tight ends in the league are a rare mix of both positions. The reason Rob Gronkowski is so great is not just because he is a top receiver, but because he can line up and dominate his assignment as a run blocker as well. An elite tight end needs to be able to straddle multiple positions and have fundamental skills that are rarely found in tandem, but those skills are very similar to those of a rugby lock forward at the basic level.
Raw strength and leg drive are important for a tight end in run blocking, and Smith should have developed that power base through his work in the scrum. Blocking, however, is about far more than pure strength, and requires a sophisticated level of technique and skill. Similarly, while he will be well used to high-pointing a football amidst traffic, and should have generally sound ball skills from passing in open play, it is an altogether different prospect catching a ball in traffic over the middle on an NFL field with linebackers and safeties looking to separate you from it the moment you make contact.
Rugby as a sport has not been a professional entity for nearly as long as football, soccer, basketball or most other big time sports, so a truly elite level of athlete has only really been emerging in the sport in the past decade. In the past, rugby players haven’t had the athleticism to cut it in the NFL. Martin Johnson, another lock forward, and one-time England World Cup winning captain, is a huge NFL fan, and once joined the 49ers during a training camp back in 2001. Johnson found that he simply had no position at the NFL level, being too small to anchor as an offensive lineman, and not nearly athletic enough to cut it as a tight end. Hayden Smith is a new breed of rugby player, and though he plays the same position as Johnson did, he represents a much more intimidating level of athlete–one that can meet the NFL standards by raw numbers alone.
To this point, there haven’t been many super athletes in rugby the way there are in the NFL, but there will be more the longer rugby remains a successful professional sport. Rugby teaches many of the same fundamental skills that football does, but does so in the isolation of a completely different game. Hayden Smith may have been taught the fundamental skills of a lock forward, which should provide an excellent base from which to take up football, but trying to take up football at the NFL level is an extremely difficult prospect, and even great athletes are rarely able to succeed at it.
Perhaps the most interesting recent parallel to Smith is Brock Lesnar, ex-collegiate wrestler and UFC fighter, now back with the WWE, who tried out for the Minnesota Vikings as a defensive linemen. Lesnar is a freak athlete but had zero football skills when he arrived, and yet the Vikings liked his upside enough to want to put him on the practice squad and try and develop him. Lesnar was looking for a more immediate pay-day and instead took to the UFC where he could guarantee quicker riches.
Hayden Smith’s best chance of success will likely come through the practice squad as well. He will likely have the raw athleticism and building blocks to succeed, but he is going to need a coach to instill football basics into him and time to master the mental, tactical and schematic parts of the game that only come from experience.