Chris Manhertz had a simple answer when asked how much football experience he had prior to signing with the Buffalo Bills.
“Madden,” the former Canisius College basketball player said, referring to the popular video game series.
Calling Manhertz green doesn’t do justice to his level of inexperience. Prior to signing a contract with the Bills two days after the 2014 season ended, he had never so much as put on a helmet or pads.
But at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, he has size that can’t be taught.
“As soon as we put a block out there and put some paint out there he’ll feel more comfortable,” cracked Bills coach Rex Ryan. “It’s such a huge jump and transition. I love the competitive-type thing. Obviously he was a tough guy and competitive guy on the basketball court, or he wouldn’t even try football.
“It’s a long road, man. It’s so different. It’s like speaking a different language.”
In that case, Manhertz is still trying to learn the alphabet.
“It’s a lot of information to take in,” Manhertz said Friday after the Bills completed the first practice of their three-day minicamp for rookies and eligible first-year players. “My thing is: Look like I’ve been there before. While I’m out there, my head is spinning trying to soak everything in. I have a lot of studying to do.”
College basketball players finding success in the NFL at tight end is not unprecedented. Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham are the most cited success stories. Gonzalez and Gates already have Hall-of-Fame credentials, and Graham could get there too if his production continues the way it has in recent seasons.
But in each one of those cases, the player had at least some football experience before arriving to the NFL. That’s why when the Bills reached out to Manhertz about trying to make the switch, he was initially surprised.
“Once the opportunity presented itself, I had to sit down and think about it,” he said. “My logic was, if all else fails, I could go back to basketball. Thankfully, I did well enough for them to give me an opportunity, so I’m here now. … Not many people get this, so I’m just trying to make the most of it.”
Ryan was a realist when talking about the odds for Manhertz after the first rookie minicamp practice.
“More times than not, it doesn’t,” Ryan said of such a transition succeeding. “But we’ll see how it is. He certainly has the desire to see this happen. There are a lot of things that go through it and he’s got to stay positive. It’s not going to come just like that for you. It never does. Even for Gates, I’m sure it never happened like that. So we’ll be patient with him. It’s a long process.”
Manhertz does have a few things working in his favor. First is his athleticism. His frame is chiseled and he’s not shy about physical contact. He led the Golden Griffins in rebounding for three straight seasons.
“I’m confident in my athletic ability,” he said. “It’s just a matter of learning the game and applying what I learned out there on the field.”
The second thing working in his favor is the Bills’ depth chart at tight end. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has raised the possibility of using up to four tight ends on game day. If the Bills do keep that many players at the position on the 53-man roster, Manhertz would have to beat out two of the other five tight ends currently with the team.
“My immediate goal is to hit the ground come training camp,” he said. “It’s right around the corner, but it’s enough time for me to learn. Get the reps in, learn the playbook, learn the schemes, so that when I go out there come July, I know what I’m doing.”
The third thing working in Manhertz’s favor – at least on the surface – is his attitude. He made it clear in speaking with reporters Friday that his inexperience can’t be used as a crutch.
“I’m my biggest critic,” he said. “I put the most pressure on myself to get this done and I’m not going to use this as an excuse as to why I’m not getting certain things down. At the end of the day we’re all here, we’re all learning at the same time.”
Because he’s considered a first-year player, Manhertz was able to go through the team’s voluntary veteran minicamp last week. Those practices moved at a quicker pace than this weekend’s workouts. But no matter whom Manhertz is around, one thing will be certain – he’s going to be the more inexperienced player.
A good example of that this weekend is when he goes through drills with sixth-round draft pick Nick O’Leary, the Mackey Award winner last season at Florida State as the nation’s top tight end. O’Leary is a football lifer, with as decorated a resume as any player could hope to wish for coming out of college. Manhertz is a neophyte, but they’re both working toward the same goal.
“I look at it as more of a learning experience. Obviously, he’s been doing this more than me,” Manhertz said of O’Leary. “I’m a spring chicken, and I’m just trying to soak in as much as I can and learn from these guys. At the end of the day, though, we’re still competing, too.”
Ryan kept open the possibility of Manhertz earning a spot on the team’s practice squad – which would be a sensible destination if the team feels he has the talent to one day succeed in the NFL.
“We don’t take a guy assuming that he’s going to get it immediately,” Ryan said. “He’s shown some things. He’s got the size that you look for. We wouldn’t have brought him out here if we weren’t intrigued by him.”