After two consecutive years falling prey to Injured Reserve, tight end Niles Paul has a greater perspective of his football career and what he needs to do to extend it.
It has been a trying two years for Redskins tight end Niles Paul.
The six-year veteran played in eight games this past season before tearing his labrum in overtime against the Cincinnati Bengals, landing him on Injured Reserve. That designation was painfully familiar after Paul sat out the entire 2015 season when he broke and dislocated his ankle in the team's first preseason game against the Browns.
Both were freak accidents, Paul, 28, described on a recent episode of "Redskins Nation," and the tight end and special teams captain has been determined to shed any stigma that might associate him with being injury-prone.
"I've had bad luck the past two years but I'm trying to refocus with a different mindset to get ready to go," Paul said.
So far, so good. In the three months since he received shoulder surgery, Paul says he feels fully healthy and is accomplishing things in the gym his coaches haven't expected.
"They are holding me back to try and protect me from myself," Paul said. "My progression is crazy and I'm in the weight room doing things I'm not supposed to be doing. I was doing pushups two months out and they couldn't believe that. I'm just trying to get right and to be mentally healthy for next season."
Still, it has been a challenge to fight through the demons of the last two years. Paul had been named the starting tight end entering training camp in 2015 before suffering his ankle injury. After an entire year of rehab, recovery and lots of waiting, Paul returned filling a slightly different role.
Tight end Jordan Reed managed to stay mostly healthy and emerged as one of the best receiving threats in the game. Washington then signed free agent Vernon Davis in the offseason, and the Maryland product provided another solid receiving threat to the unit.
Washington still relied on Paul to be a leader on special teams, but he became less of a factor in the offense, marginalized to three tight end formations and occasionally playing the role of a fullback. He caught just two passes for 27 yards before his season was lost in London.
"I was upset because I had put so much work in," Paul said. "It was eight games into the season and it wasn't going exactly how I wanted it to go personally but as a team we were getting things done. My dad described it to me best, I was just so hungry for a catch and so hungry to make a play that I put my body out there and I ended up tearing my labrum. What baffles me is that I've been in this league going on seven years and I broke my ankle, which was a freak accident, and I tore my labrum, which was another freak accident."
Paul settled into the routine he had established last year, staying home and watching Redskins games on television, evaluating his position groups and rooting on his teammates. There remains one year left on his current contract, and Paul knows that, depending on what the team decides to do in free agency, he will have to fight for a spot again.
"We got four legit tight ends and I'm excited about that," Paul said. "It's always some competition. Vernon Davis has been a great asset to us; he has only pushed me to be a better tight end. I felt us kind of all feeding off each other J. Reed, Derek [Carrier], Vernon, and me. We kind of elevated our games in the weight room and on the practice field we are catching extra passes, running extra routes, lifting extra heavy, and everybody was trying to outdo each other. That's the type of competition you have to have. That's how you create a great tight end cores, great offenses, and great teams."
Check out behind the scenes images from tight end Niles Paul's 2016 Redskins Photo Shoot.
Paul is a firm believer in the prosperity of the Redskins' offense, regardless of which playmakers may or may not return this spring. While losing offensive coordinator Sean McVay will be challenging, Paul admitted he was more worried about losing tight ends coach Wes Phillips, who will be returning in 2017.
"People want to credit this tight end group just for being naturally gifted; there is a reason why Vernon Davis came here and people thought he was done. There is a reason why he elevated his game back to the level of a Pro Bowl caliber tight end and I have to give that to Wes," Paul said. "Wes is the reason why I have made so many strides year by year as a tight end. He really takes the time out to teach us the fundamentals at the position, making us a complete tight ends and not just wide receivers."
As he continues to heal and strengthen a body he's hoping to prove has not fallen susceptible to annual injuries, Paul has tried to embrace his uncertainty as well as his status as a leader in the room.
"To be noticed and recognized by my teammates, I had to sit down and realize I'm not a young guy anymore," Paul said. "I'm a vet and I have to come out here and bring it every time. It's up to me to lead these guys by example and I understand my role as that."