Intriguing Browns tight end Fells tried pro hoops first

New Browns tight end Darren Fells played hoops at UC Irvine for four years and overseas for five before turning to football.

At 6-foot-7, 270 pounds, Darren Fells is pretty much just A Guy on the basketball floor as a frontcourt player at the professional level, even though he’s about the size of LeBron James.

However, possessing a 7-foot wing span, Fells is anything but a run-of-the-mill tight end on the football field.

That led to a three-year, $12 million free-agent contract ($6.1 million of which is guaranteed) with the Cleveland Browns.

“I’m always open,” Fells said.

Darren Fells of the Browns attempts to break from Mychal Kendricks during a practice in Berea.

However, before the 32-year-old embarked on what is his fifth season as an NFL tight end, Fells spent years trying to make it into the NBA, and there were rumors of a possibility with the Minnesota Timberwolves, though that door never opened.

Fells spent four seasons playing basketball at the University of California-Irvine, wrapping up his career with the Anteaters by averaging 14.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.6 steals in 31.5 minutes in 32 games (28 starts). He shot 56.9 percent from the field and 74.2 percent from the free-throw line.

He was not selected in the 2008 NBA draft, so he embarked on five-year journey overseas. He played for teams in Argentina, Mexico, Belgium, Finland and France.

Finally, at age 26, reality set in for the Fullerton, Calif., native. He probably wasn’t ever going to get a shot in he NBA.

“It was pretty apparent it was football or nothing,” Fells told Dan Labbe of Cleveland.com. “I actually talked to my basketball agent at the time and told him, ‘I’m not coming back, sorry.’ He understood.

“Overseas isn’t made for everybody. I just put all my eggs in the basket and told my brother, ‘Hey, I’m training for football. I need your help.'”

Fells’ brother, Daniel, spent seven seasons in the NFL as a tight end with the Atlanta Falcons, Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, St. Louis Rams, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and New York Giants, catching 40 passes for 1,334 yards and 12 touchdowns in 89 games (40 starts).

In addition to his brother, Darren Fells — who did not catch a pass and was targeted only once in the Browns’ preseason-opening win over the Giants — was also motivated by a former Kent State University basketball player who transitioned to the NFL and became a star.

Antonio Gates,” he told Steve Doerschuk of the Canton Repository through Ohio.com, “is a huge reference point.

“I kept hearing, ‘if you’re going to hop into the NFL, tight end is your only shot.’”

Fells, who will play his second preseason game as a Brown on Friday night against the Buffalo Bills at First Energy Stadium, did enough to catch the eye of coach Bruce Arians of the Arizona Cardinals in 2014 to earn a roster spot and remained with the Cardinals through 2016. Last season with the Detroit Lions, Fells played in all 16 games, starting 13, and hauling in 17 receptions for 177 yards and three touchdowns.

“I played basketball in college, I didn’t play football, so it was one of those things, I didn’t have very many NBA scouts looking at me, so it was either take a shot at the D-League, (and) a lot of guys don’t go from the D-League to the NBA, or you go overseas, develop your game and see what happens from there,” he told Labbe.

“It was one of those things that was a no-brainer and I wanted to continue playing basketball. Most people don’t know, I had a shot to play football out of college, I had a tryout with the Minnesota Vikings, but it was one of those things. I played basketball for four years, I know what I can do on the basketball court. I have no clue what to expect from the NFL from not being in football in pads for four or five years, so it was one of those things I wasn’t ready to take that risk.”

While his numbers were never eye-popping playing hoops abroad, not getting a chance in the NBA was not for a lack of effort by Fells.

Here’s a quick review of his overseas stays:

* 2008-09 — As a rookie on the Basketball League Belgium Division I team Leuven Bears, he averaged 9.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in 33 games. In his second season, 2009-10, Fells averaged 8.1 points and 4.7 rebounds.

* 2010-11 — Fells played for Kataja Basket Club of the Finnish Korisliiga. In 55 games, he averaged 13.8 points and 8.3 rebounds. Kataja was runner-up of the 2011 Korisliiga Finals.

* 2011-12 — A Étendard de Brest of French LNB Pro B, Fells played 25 games for Soles de Mexicali of the Mexican Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional, averaging13.5 points and 7.5 rebounds. After the LNBP season ended, Fells played nine games for Obras Sanitarias of the Argentine Liga Nacional de Basquet from March to April 2012, averaging 6.9 points and 4.7 boards. In December 2012, Fells signed with Libertad de Sunchales in Argentina, but did not play any games.

Fells said dealing with the language barrier of leaving the United States to play professional basketball overseas has helped him in terms of the language barrier that comes with changing from one spot to another.

“From the language barrier, yeah, that makes a lot of sense because when I made the transition to football, because football itself is a language barrier, it’s a different language, so making that transition, didn’t know who a MIKE backer was — I was thinking that was his name when I was coming out,” he said.

“It was just one of those things where I knew I had to embrace that culture and try to figure it out. That’s pretty much exactly what I did overseas. If it was a massive language barrier, I just embraced it and tried to figure out how I could survive in that culture. So football, it’s a direct translation, just figuring out the language and surviving in it.”

In 57 career games in the NFL, Fells has made only 57 catches for 713 yards, grabbing seven touchdown passes.

Unlike most NFL tight ends who transition from football to basketball, Fells has become known as a blocking tight end. However, he said it certainly was not always the case for him.

“I think one of the main reasons behind that was the offense I was in, (coached by) Bruce Arians, was a run-first offense, but also the fact that I hate having extreme weaknesses,” Fells said.  “Any weakness I have I try to work on, and being cut from Seattle because I couldn’t block stuck with me, and then almost getting cut from Arizona after spending a year on the practice squad because my blocking wasn’t improving also hurt.

“So the fact that I didn’t want to be known as another basketball player that can’t block, I put so much more time into technique on kick-sliding and stuff, watching tackles instead of watching other blocking tight ends and learning different techniques that way and putting a lot of time into that.”

The differences between playing at the Division I level and certainly the NBA level in basketball compared to what is played overseas was readily apparent for Fells, who earned the nickname “Diesel” because of his physical style of play at UC Irvine.

“It’s definitely more of a finesse, move-the-ball style,” he said. “You go over there thinking it’s going to be the NBA (which is) more based on one-on-one style of play and if you can one-on-one beat this guy, you pretty much dominate.

“Europe is more of a team game, you need to develop a sense of your teammates and how to move the ball and how to move yourself to get open, so when I went over there I was thinking, ‘post up, give me the ball and I’ll score every time’ but in reality it’s more I have to move around so I had to definitely change my mindset.”

The same held true in terms on his transition back to the gridiron, where he had not been since being a high school standout.

“I wasn’t going to be the fastest tight end because I saw all these other guys, young, thinner, explosive guys out there, I’m like, ‘I’m coming in at 26, I have speed but I don’t have that explosive speed these other guys have,’ ex-receivers or like (Colts tight end) Eric Ebron, I played with one of the most explosive tight ends I’ve seen,” he said.

“Knowing that I’m never going to have that explosiveness in route running, what can I develop that I can be the best at? Same thing when it came to blocking, I know I have a bigger body so I can use my body in that sense and most tight ends coming in the league, nowadays they’re more receiving tight ends, so how I can be the best at a position that is irreplaceable?

“So that’s the whole thing, developing something that no other player has to make yourself valuable. Make it hard for the team to cut you because they know they’re not going to find this anywhere else, that’s what drove me.”

While he had to adjust in terms of returning to football inertially, that is no longer the case, though. As part of a position group with the Browns that includes David Njoku and Seth DeValve, Fells knows his role.

“My main strength is as a blocking tight end,” he told Doerschuk.

Not that he’s not willing to expand his role in terms of being a pass-catching tight end, though.

“I feel I can catch anything that comes my way,” he said.

As a former professional basketball player, Fells knows something about athleticism. He’s impressed by what  he’s seen out of Njoku, who caught 32 passes last season as a rookie with the Browns. Njoku caught two touchdowns in the Browns’ 20-10 against the Giants last week.

“David is an unbelievable talent,” Fells told Labbe. “I haven’t seen some basketball players jump the way he can.”

Trying basketball first as a professional does have one additional benefit, Fells said.

“I feel like I have at least seven years because I didn’t have four years of college, and then the five years overseas basketball, which is nowhere near the wear and tear of five years of football,” he said. “I feel like I’m actually 21, 23.”