Basketball players don’t butt heads with 300-pound defensive linemen. They don’t take a helmet to the ribs after they catch a pass. They don’t wake up with bruises and welts after every game.
“Frankly, I’m tired of hearing about basketball,” Browns tight end Jordan Cameron said recently. “I’m not a basketball player. I’m a football player now.
“These tight ends nowadays have basketball backgrounds, but I don’t want to be known as a basketball player.”
Cameron’s bio states he was a basketball player at BYU and USC, but he wants to leave that in his past. He hasn’t played a pickup game in months and said all he does is dunk anyway. He’s spent the time off the court wisely, remaking himself from project with potential to one of the biggest surprises of the NFL season.
Cameron leads the Browns in receptions (33), receiving yards (396) and touchdowns (five). His reception total is tied for second among tight ends and tied for sixth in the NFL. His yardage is third among tight ends, 14th overall. His 30 points are tied for sixth among non-kickers.
The numbers always seemed possible for a 6-foot-5, 250-pound specimen with the quickness and jumping ability necessary to navigate a basketball court. That’s why former general manager Tom Heckert took a flyer on him in the fourth round in 2011, despite no starts and only 16 catches for 126 yards and a touchdown in 23 games at USC.
But the production was slow to arrive. In two years, eight starts and 22 games, he had 26 catches for 259 yards and a touchdown.
The new regime, which includes tight end-friendly coach Rob Chudzinski and coordinator Norv Turner, saw enough on film and in the offseason to hand Cameron the starting job for 2013. It’s been rewarded.
“I just like the consistency,” Turner said.
Cue tight ends coach Jon Embree and future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez.
Embree coached Gonzalez for three years with the Chiefs and they became tight. When Embree joined Cameron in Cleveland this year, he suggested a meeting with the NFL’s all-time leader among tight ends with 106 touchdowns, 1,275 receptions and 14,607 receiving yards.
“I felt him having some time with Tony would be good because he wants to work at it, he wants to get better and Tony obviously has a lot of knowledge,” Embree told The Chronicle-Telegram. “I wanted Jordan to understand some of the reasons why Tony is the player that he is. It’s all the stuff he does before the game, the different routines.
“I think that time with Tony has really helped him a lot.”
Cameron has adopted Gonzalez’s drill work during practice and pregame. Gonzalez also provided tips on taking notes in meetings and watching tape.
“Tony basically gave him his whole book, so to speak, on things that he’s done and why he feels like that’s helped enable him to play at such a high level for such a long time,” Embree said.
Cameron was struck by the focus on maintaining a routine.
“He does the same thing every single day,” Cameron said. “When he’s at work he’s at work, and he’s not here to hang out or talk to his buddies, he’s here to get better.
That’s what I took from him.
“No matter if he’s tired, hurt or not feeling the best or lazy, he just does it and sticks to the plan.”
Cameron fought through the initial monotony of his new life and emerged a better player. He caught a franchise-record-tying three touchdowns against the Vikings and a career-high 10 passes the following week against the Bengals.
“You’ve just got to stick to it and it pays off,” he said.
He might be the best fantasy football pick of the season and has been mentioned with New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham among the up-and-comers at the league’s hot position. It’s too soon to tell if Cameron will sustain the success, and that’s where Embree brings up Gonzalez again.
Gonzalez had been voted to his 10th Pro Bowl in 2008 and finished the final practice of the season for a Chiefs team that went 2-14. But he wasn’t about to abandon his post-practice regimen.
“It’s Christmastime and after the last practice, Tony stays out and we do the drill,” Embree said. “I didn’t have to look for him, he’s there with two footballs to go do the drills.
“To have that consistency, that work ethic, that drive. Jordan’s doing it himself. He’s just focusing on today.”
Cameron’s consistency of approach has been matched by his production catching and improvement as a blocker. The effort in the run game and pass protection has given the coaching staff confidence to play him on almost every snap as the season has progressed.
“I’ve been really trying to get better, that’s the main thing Coach Embree and I have been working on,” Cameron said, referring to blocking techniques. “It’s one of those things you just need time and reps to get better at it, and I think I’ve gotten better each game.”
“He’s just understanding the game better,” Chudzinski said. “He’s understanding what we’re trying to do, and I really think he’s improving as a blocker. He had some key blocks on some of our runs from this past game that were big blocks. One-on-one blocks against some pretty good-sized guys.”
No matter how solid Cameron becomes as a blocker, his most valuable contributions will be as a receiver. His speed/size combination is an almost impossible matchup for linebackers and safeties.
“He’s got good quickness, so that allows him to get off the line of scrimmage quick,” Embree said. “And then he can run. He really has great burst and puts his foot in the ground and gets out of a break. When he runs out of a break, he creates that separation.
“He just does a great job of playing outside of his frame and using his length and catching the ball away from his body.”
Cameron’s gone a long way toward making people forget he was a basketball player.
“I never saw him like that,” Embree said. “He has that in him as far as being a physical player. He’s got very good strength and functional strength on top of that.
“For him, it’s just a matter of getting some things organized with his feet and hands and some other things that he’s really worked hard at that’s allowed him to make those strides.”