One of the reasons Trey Lance was such a compelling story when the 49ers made him the third overall pick in the NFL Draft was the fact that he refused to switch positions when most colleges wanted him to play anywhere other than quarterback. Lance stood his ground and was able to see it through. But there are circumstances where it pays to be flexible.
Here are five players who successfully made the transition from quarterback to another position in the NFL:
Logan Thomas, TE
Drafted: 2014 / Round 4 / Pick 120 / Arizona Cardinals
At Virginia Tech, Logan Thomas was a solid quarterback who had 9,003 passing yards to go with 52 passing touchdowns during his time with the Hokies. Thomas ended up getting drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 draft by the Arizona Cardinals. Thomas would bounce around a couple of teams until he made the best move of his career: switching to tight end. He wouldn’t find immediate success, but Washington decided to take a chance on his upside in 2020. The former QB would have his best year in Washington, compiling 72 receptions for 670 yards and 6 TDs.
Thomas had many different traits that made his transition smooth. The former Hokie stands at 6-6 and he was a physically imposing force in the run game at Virginia Tech. This translates extremely well to the tight end position, showing immense physicality over the middle. Ultimately, Thomas’ ability as a runner makes him a very difficult player to take down in the open field even if he lacks elite speed in the open field — Thomas ran a 4.61 40-yard dash when he was coming out of college. Thomas dissects the open field like a QB by properly using his eyes to create deception.
Julian Edelman, WR
Drafted: 2009 / Round 7 / Pick 232 / New England Patriots
Julian Edelman nearly went undrafted after his career at Kent State as a quarterback. Bill Belichick took a chance on him in the seventh round of the 2009 draft and the rest is history. One thing that stood out about Edelman as a quarterback at Kent State was his craftiness in the open field. Part of the reason why Edelman couldn’t make it as a quarterback was due to the fact that he was a much better player in the running game than the passing attack. In fact, Edelman had more interceptions at Kent State than he had passing touchdowns in three seasons of play (30 TDs against 31 INTs); however, his toughness and abilities in the running game (2,483 rushing yards in his collegiate career) made Kent State stick with him at quarterback. As one of the Patriots’ better receivers and returners, and being named MVP of Super Bowl LIII, Edelman was able to succeed in the Patriots’ system due to his aforementioned toughness, fighting through many injuries throughout his career, along with his great route running abilities that stemmed from his craftiness in the run game at Kent State.
Edelman was able to get open constantly and then make multiple defenders miss (Edelman forced 105 missed tackles throughout his professional career), which made him an extremely dependable player for many seasons in New England.
Joshua Cribbs, WR
Drafted: 2005 / UDFA / Cleveland Browns
Josh Cribbs was another Kent State quarterback who was able to find a niche at the next level. In fact, Cribbs owned the school’s total offense record until it was broken by Edelman years later. Cribbs had many of the same issues as Edelman when he was a player at Kent State. He was always known as a run-first quarterback rather than somebody who could hurt you in the passing game — despite the fact that his passing prowess was better than Edelman’s. Cribbs threw for 7,169 yards and 45 touchdowns against 34 interceptions during his collegiate career.
Cribbs was not proficient in the mechanics department in order to stay at the position moving forward. Although Cribbs was never able to break out as a receiver in the NFL, he was able to find a niche as one of the best return specialists. Between 2005-11, Cribbs had 11 return touchdowns (8 kickoffs, 3 punts). The ability to adapt, along with great elusiveness and speed, were what gave Cribbs a chance to play in the NFL, something that may have not been realized if he had tried to continue to play QB.
Brian Mitchell, RB
Drafted: 1990 / Round 5 / Pick 130 / Washington Football Team
In 1990, the quarterback position in the NFL consisted mainly of pocket passers. They really weren’t dynamic athletes outside of some outliers like Randall Cunningham and Steve Young. Dual-threat quarterbacks were not nearly as prevalent as they are today. Brian Mitchell had a tremendous career at Southwestern Louisiana that saw him become the first collegiate player to pass for over 5,000 yards and rush for over 3,000. This was revolutionary at the time, but his talent at quarterback would go unrealized due to the style of the time. He was drafted in the fifth round, but he ended up having a tremendous career at running back due to his return abilities and his value on third downs. Mitchell actually holds the record for combined kick return and punt return yards in a career as well as being second to Jerry Rice in career all-purpose yards. Amazingly, Mitchell never returned kicks prior to playing in the NFL. Even though Mitchell was unable to play his original position at the next level, he was still able to use his explosiveness and speed to help out a team in other ways. Using the traits he had from his tremendous college career, Mitchell was able to carve out a role for 14 years in the NFL due to his versatile skillset.
Antwaan Randle El, WR
Drafted: 2002 / Round 2 / Pick 62 / Pittsburgh Steelers
Not many people have forgotten when Antwaan Randle El threw a touchdown pass to Hines Ward in Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks. It was that great of a play, and it was essentially unheard of at the time to have a wide receiver throw a pass like that on football’s biggest stage. However, Bill Cowher and company had enough confidence in Randle El to make the throw based on his days as a quarterback at Indiana University. Randle El was one of the best quarterbacks to ever come out of that program (he was inducted into Indiana’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2012). During his time at IU, Randle El became the first collegiate player to ever have 40 career passing touchdowns and 40 career rushing touchdowns, yet he made the switch to WR in order to preserve his career in a time when pocket passers were the preferred type of quarterback. What makes Randle El an interesting case in this study is his background as a basketball player. This background allowed him to be a dependable receiver in jump ball situations as he boasted solid athleticism along with explosiveness that would help him to be one of the better returners in the 2000s. Just because one door closes, it doesn’t mean that another one won’t open.