Jake Fisher is betting on his athleticism.
His contract was up this year after four seasons as a backup tackle with the Cincinnati Bengals. He could have pursued an opportunity to win a job as a No. 3, swing tackle with another team in 2019.
There’s no doubt numerous teams would have signed him for backup money. After all, he was a second-round draft choice out of Oregon in 2015.
That’s not what Fisher wanted. The 26-year-old from Michigan starred in high school as a tight end and defensive end. He likes catching the ball. He likes using his mobility in the open field.
He decided he was going to make the almost-unheard-of conversion from tackle to tight end.
“I think it comes down to being happy every day, what you’re passionate about,” Fisher said in a recent interview at One Bills Drive. “If you’re not doing that, change it up. For me, I’m passionate about tight end. I’m passionate about blocking, contributing any way I can for the team. … It’s about setting your mind on something and betting on yourself.”
The Bills are intrigued. They signed Fisher to a one-year, minimum-salary contract 10 days into the free-agency season. He will try to make the team as the situational, blocking tight end.
Lots of players have converted from basketball to tight end in the NFL, with future Hall-of-Famer Antonio Gates being the prime example.
Plenty of players convert from tight end to tackle, including Eagles star and former Bill Jason Peters. Some guys even convert from quarterback to tight end, like former Bill Jay Riemersma.
Not one tight end currently in the NFL, aside from Fisher, played their college career at tackle.
“I can not think of a soul who ever did it,” said legendary offensive line coach Jim McNally, who has been in the NFL since 1980.
Actually, the Bills had one. Paul Seymour, a first-round draft pick in 1973, starred at tackle at the University of Michigan and enjoyed a successful five-year career as a starting tight end in Buffalo.
“I was slotted as an athletic tackle coming into the league,” Fisher said. “A lot of guys and a lot of the draft personnel all categorized me as a tight end playing offensive line. I have confidence in my ability and I just have to put the work in.”
(Below is Fisher catching a 31-yard pass as a rookie with the Bengals in 2015.)
Fisher played 48 games for the Bengals but never was able to establish himself as a starter. He started seven games at right tackle in 2017 but then went on injured reserve due to a heart issue that was surgically repaired. Last season, he saw very few snaps as the backup to Cordy Glenn.
Playing weight is part of his motivation. Fisher weighed anywhere from 300 to 310 pounds the past two years in Cincinnati. He thinks his body simply is not meant to be that heavy.
“For someone that’s not naturally 320 to 340 playing offensive tackle, it took a lot of work to get to 315,” Fisher said. “So a lot of that excess weight just was breaking down my body later in the season, not allowing me to be the best form of me.”
Fisher played at 265 in high school. He’s now down to 268.
“I would say that’s my natural weight,” he said. “I think I want to be in the low 260s, see how I feel, see how I can block, and go from there.”
McNally, a former Bills offensive line coach and now a consultant with the Bengals, thinks Fisher can make the switch.
“I do think Jake Fisher is a good enough athlete,” McNally said. “He probably can run just fast enough to run short pass patterns. I think with his blocking ability, he could be a helluva player. Not every tight end has to run way down the middle of the field.”
“I think this was a way for him to get back to what made football fun and special,” said Fisher’s agent, Ryan Downey. “The transition back to tight end makes a lot of sense.”
Downey said the Bills were one of about six teams that wanted to bring Fisher in for a visit when free agency opened.
Buffalo talked Downey and Fisher into being first on his free-agent “dance card,” and Fisher cancelled his other stops. He signed a one-year, $805,000 deal.
The gamble cost Fisher some money in the short run. In fact, Fisher’s agency the past four year, Lagardere Unlimited, didn’t want him to make the position switch. So he hired Downey, who he got to know during the pre-draft process when he was at Oregon.
“I’m not sure he would have made $3 million, but he might have made $2.5 [million],” Downey said of Fisher’s tackle prospects. “He was honestly taking a 65, 70 percent pay cut to play tight end in a bit of a leap of faith because he was so passionate about it. But if he proves he has the capability of doing this, the money will take care of itself next year.”
Consider the case of one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL, Oakland’s Lee Smith. He was the third tight end with the Bills from 2011 to 2014 and caught a total of 20 passes. He’s still in the league, at age 31, making $3 million a year from the Raiders. He played 27 percent of the snaps last year. He caught 10 passes.
Furthermore, the fact there are no other current offensive tackle-to-tight end examples in the NFL is a tad misleading, because almost every team in the league uses formations with six offensive linemen. The Bills did it 4 percent of the snaps last year, about average, according to News statistics. Seattle did it a league-high 20 percent, according to Football Outsiders. The point is: Getting another big blocker on the edge, whether it’s a big tight end or a tackle, is hardly an outside-the-box concept.
Fisher has no doubt about his ability to be a consistent pass catcher.
“No, absolutely not,” he said.
“It’s going to be somewhat transparent if he can’t show pass catching ability in the preseason,” Downey said, “because then it’ll be pretty obvious to understand what Buffalo’s trying to do offensively when he’s on the field.”
Fisher spent six weeks in February and early March in Southern California running routes and catching passes from NFL quarterbacks, including the Bills’ Josh Allen and the Jets’ Sam Darnold. It was part of the offseason training conducted by QB guru Jordan Palmer and included top draft-eligible quarterbacks, too.
If he can make the switch, he knows that the direction college football offenses have taken the past decade probably helps his chances of extending his career.
“The game is evolving to that spread offense, and that takes away from the blocking side of the tight end mentality,” he said. “For me, growing up aggressively playing tight end and then aggressively playing defensive line, I took that mentality to the offensive line. Aggressively getting on the second level, third level, that was my strength as a player. I think that can apply to this situation as far as what some other tight ends are lacking.”
The switch, it seems, has renewed Fisher’s passion for the game.
“I’m all in on me,” he says.