“Experienced football player” is not an attribute to be associated with Jordan Cameron, a tight end from the University of Southern California. Instead, to describe him using the words “athletic” and “basketball player” work best. Based purely on potential, the Cleveland Browns drafted Cameron (6-foot-5, 254 pounds) with the 102nd pick in the fourth round of last month’s NFL draft.
In order to find out more on Cameron, The Orange and Brown Report contacted Michael Lev, who covers USC football for the Orange County Register. He was on the beat when Cameron transferred from Brigham Young and the expectations were high.
“We thought at first he was going to have significant impact as a red zone specialist,” Lev said. “He had such extraordinary size and leaping ability. It didn’t work out that way.”
At Newbury Park (Calif.) High School Cameron was an All-area wide receiver. During his senior season, Cameron caught 73 passes for 1,022 yards and 12 touchdowns. That winter, he averaged 21.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 3.0 steals. He opted to play basketball at BYU, but it didn’t last. After he was redshirted his first year, 2006-07, he transferred to USC.
According to Lev, Cameron turned heads in his first training camp in 2008. Yet as quickly as Cameron flashed his potential, it was gone. He never was able to settle in at the wide receiver position. Before the 2010 season, new coach Lane Kiffin moved Cameron to tight end. It proved to be a better fit.
“Seeing him in practice, you saw how much he improved at tight end,” Lev said. “You like to see that. From the time they decided to make him a full-time tight end in the spring of 2010 until he left USC, he got a lot better especially as a blocker.”
“He couldn’t have played in a game when he first started out as a blocker, but he became functional,” Lev said. “He’ll never be a great inline blocker, but he can flex out. I’ve seen him compare to Jimmy Graham, who played for New Orleans last year as a rookie from the University of Miami.”
Cameron finished last season at USC with 16 catches for 126 yards with one touchdown.
“There were times in games he made really nice plays,” Lev said. “He caught the ball in traffic and he showed good hands. The questions are is he going to be tough enough and instinctive enough as a guy who was a basketball player and then started as a wide receiver? He does not have a lot of experience at this point.”
As Lev referenced in Graham, basketball players making the transition to pass receiving football players are not uncommon. Graham (6-6, 260) had 31 catches for 356 yards and five touchdowns for the Saints last season. In 2009, Graham caught 17 balls for 213 yards with Miami before New Orleans drafted him 95th overall in the 2010 NFL Draft. Graham attended Miami to play basketball.
Other notable basketball-players-turned-NFL-players include Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates.
“I understand the natural comparison with Gates,” Lev said. “When you watch Gates play, he’s so smooth and natural. I don’t think Jordan is as natural as a player, but that doesn’t mean he can’t become a very good one.
“A lot is going to depend on how he’s used. In the West Coast style of offense you can move him around, flex him out, isolate him on a linebacker or safety and he could be very effective that way.”
Cameron’s lack of on-field production was overshadowed by his performance at the NFL Combine.
In Indianapolis, Cameron had the second-fastest time in the 40-yard dash among all tight ends (4.59 seconds), the second-highest vertical leap (37.5 inches) and led all tight ends in the three-cone drill, the 20-yard shuttle and the 60-yard shuttle. He also ranked third in the broad jump and fifth in the bench press, making him the only tight end prospect to finish in the top five of every drill.
"We like this kid," Browns GM Tom Heckert said at a post-draft press conference.
"We think he’s talented and there’s been some receivers or tight ends in the past that have come out that have been basketball players or that didn’t have as much. This kid’s got a feel. This kid, he plays. I mean he’s been on the field. It’s not like he’s a one-year player. This guy has played football. I don’t think we’re looking at it as, ‘He’s going to help us four years from now.’ We hope he helps us this year.”
For now, Cameron will rely on his athleticism and hopes football IQ quickly improves.
“I think people are a good judge of talent and see that I have the athletic ability to make a difference at this next level with coaching,” Cameron said in a conference call with local media after he was drafted last month. “I have limited experience in the football aspect of things so they can help me with that and they can kind of see what I can be able to do in the short future.”