Emerging Talents: Hybrid James Casey

“He’s going to play everywhere. He’s our starting fullback. He’s a starting (tight end) if we go to two tights. It’s still about versatility with James.”

Gary Kubiak, head coach of the Houston Texans talking to Houston Chronicle reporter John McClain about James Casey in May 2012.

Based on what I’ve observed about James Casey, I’m willing to bet if he weren’t a professional football player he’s the type of guy that the Universe gives him a gift as it kicks him in the ass. If you’ve lived life, you know what I mean. If you don’t, imagine driving an 12 year-old beater that you’ve been holding together with prayers and duct tape to hang onto that job or get your kid to school and it breaks down and needs $500 in repairs just you won the $520 on a scratch-and-win lottery ticket the night before.

Casey the football player is ahead of his time, but may not be not so far ahead that he missed the entire era. The term “hybrid” may be trendy, but just a few years ago these where “players without a position,” – a phrase football people labeled versatile athletes with good fundamentals but physical dimensions and athleticism that didn’t fit one specific role.

Casey arrived in the NFL just at the end of the NFL’s Hybrid Dark Age, but in 2011 – Casey’s third year – there was a sign of future enlightenment in Texas. The former Rice star was used in multiple tight end sets as a fullback, H-Back, and tight end against the New Orleans Saints and gained 126 yards on 5 catches, including the diving touchdown reception seen in the video clip above. Unfortunately, a pectoral injury while playing special teams limited Casey and the Texans stopped using him as an offensive weapon.

I have limited video of Casey in the NFL, but here are some things I’ve seen him do in the NFL that can also be seen in this compilation of highlights at Rice. While I don’t think Casey is as rare an athlete as Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, I believe he’s closer that most.

Fluid Athleticism

When a player can gain yardage on a screen split away from the formation with the help of a well executed spin move, that’s a good sign of quickness and agility. While the ability to high-point a pass is a telltale sign of athleticism, the more difficult catch is often “digging out” the ball on a low throw. Here’s a throw that’s not quite as low, but he’s also has to demonstrate awareness of the sideline on this improvised play where Casey has to lean towards the ball thrown near his shins while on the move – a difficult catch.

However, the most telling aspect of a high-end athlete with the ball in his hands is the ability to string varying moves together to make multiple defenders miss while heading down hill. Extending for the ball and making a deep catch in stride with the hands away from the body is something that only the high-end athletes at tight end do consistently. Here’s two views of a play where Casey looks like a wide receiver in terms of separation, extending for the ball, and running through it.

Speaking of difficult catches, here’s an example of great concentration, soft hands, and skill at adjusting to the ball in the air in the middle of the field. Part of projecting performance potential in the NFL is looking at these plays and seeing that Casey could be an effective receiver on back-shoulder fades if the coaching staff and quarterback makes it a point to target him this way. We may not see any back-shoulder plays on this tape, but all of the components that go into them are there.

Strong Hands

I’ve seen Casey make multiple catches over his shoulder while on the run with his back to the quarterback. I like that he consistently plucks – or snatches – the ball with his hands away from his body and secures the pass efficiently to his body. I get the sense with Casey it’s an ingrained habit, because whether he’s in tight coverage or wide open near the end zone, he immediately gets the ball tight to his body. This is another good indication that Casey is a good weapon as a runner after the catch, because he prepares for contact as if it is a deeply ingrained aspect of his game. One might believe most players that handle the ball in the NFL do this, but pay close attention and prepared to be surprised by the carelessness that abounds.

Finishing Technique

What I love about Casey is that if he’s within range of a first down, he has the short-yardage experience and technique of a good fullback. He gets his pads low and keeps his legs moving to drive forward. There are consecutive plays where Casey demonstrates this skill in short yardage.

Quick First Step

What makes a good runner after the catch is the skill to change direction with one step as the pursuit draws close. Casey is just as likely to lower his pads as he is to side-step a defender and that’s the sign of a good ball carrier.

Catching the Ball in the Face of Contact

This is the sign of a receiver with the potential to develop into a reliable possession weapon in the NFL that a quarterback will trust and return to him often. Here’s a catch where Casey makes the reception with a safety coming directly at him. A majority of receivers – even in the NFL drop their share of passes in this situation. Casey makes it look easy.

The ability for Casey to become a significant offensive weapon is there. It’s just a matter of the Texans deciding to use him.Based on what I saw last year with the Saints and my believe they failed to land a quality perimeter weapon to complement Andre Johnson that is as skilled and versatile as their fullback/tight end, I think Houston will arrive at that conclusion – if they haven’t already.

For analysis of skill players entering the NFL, download the 2012 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 RSP at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse.

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