Ranking the NFL’s best baseball players

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Major League Baseball will play its annual All-Star Game on Tuesday night, and chances are that few — if any — NFL players could have made it. You have to love baseball to be great at it, as with most endeavors. And if you love baseball, why wouldn’t you pursue its longer careers, fully guaranteed contracts and healthier futures?

Joe Mauer, for one, chose wisely. In 2001, he turned down a scholarship to play quarterback at Florida State in favor of entering the MLB draft. By the end of the 2018 season, he will have earned $244 million from the Minnesota Twins.

With that said, there are some pretty decent baseball players scattered throughout NFL rosters. In this moment of calm in the football year, let’s consider nine of the best and rank them for the fun of it. (Get it? Nine players on a baseball diamond? With a bench, manager — not coach — and a general manager! Maybe I should have been a baseball writer … )

Skills are based in large part on the imperfect spectrum of whether they were drafted.

Starting lineup

1. Detroit Lions WR Golden Tate

Tate was a speedy outfielder at Pope John Paul II (Tennessee) High School but had his senior season cut short by a thumb injury. Although he was one of the country’s top football prospects in 2007, the Arizona Diamondbacks used a 42nd-round draft pick on him just in case. Tate continued his baseball career while focusing on football at Notre Dame, and in two seasons he hit .318 with 16 stolen bases over 73 games. School officials timed him in 6.4-6.5 seconds in the 60-meter run, a measure of how fast he could get down the first-base line. He was also drafted by the San Francisco Giants (50th round) in 2010, the same year the Seattle Seahawks drafted him in the second round.

2. New England Patriots RB Tyler Gaffney

Gaffney shuttled between baseball and football during his career at Stanford and was serious enough about the former to leave school for a year to pursue success in the minor leagues. He played 38 games at the Pittsburgh Pirates‘ Class A level in 2012, hitting . 297 with 11 stolen bases before returning to be Stanford’s feature back for the 2013 football season. In two college seasons, Gaffney batted .301 with 132 runs scored over 161 games while also putting together a 24-game hitting streak.

3. Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson

Wilson was drafted twice by MLB teams, first in 2007 by the Baltimore Orioles (41st round) and then by the Colorado Rockies in 2010 (fourth round). After receiving a $200,000 bonus, he spent two summers playing at the Class A level in the Rockies’ farm system as a second baseman and hit .229 with five home runs and 26 RBIs in 93 games. The Texas Rangers acquired his rights in the 2013 AAA Rule 5 draft, and he spent time with them in spring training. Wilson has said that he loved baseball enough to make it a dual pursuit during his college years. But, he said, “God made me 5-foot-11 for a reason. … [H]e wanted me to go against the odds of everyone telling me ‘no’ in football.”

4. New York Jets WR Eric Decker

Decker was drafted twice, by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008 (39th round) and the Twins in 2009 (27th round). An outfielder who threw and batted lefty, Decker played two seasons of college baseball at the University of Minnesota. He hit .324 with an on-base percentage of .406 in 374 at-bats over 110 games. His performance and obvious athleticism excited baseball scouts who envisioned him as a ground-covering outfielder and multi-threat leadoff hitter, but Decker prioritized his football career.

5. Chicago Bears OL Kyle Long

Long might be the most intriguing baseball prospect on this list given his freakish athleticism. Already 6-foot-6 and nearly 300 pounds as a senior at St. Anne’s-Belfield (Virginia) School, Long hit .500 and recorded 95 strikeouts in 50 innings. He initially planned to focus on baseball in college, even after the Chicago White Sox made him a 23rd-round draft choice in 2008, and accepted a baseball scholarship from Florida State. Legal and academic issues led to his departure after one year, and from that point on he focused on football. We can only imagine what a pitcher of Long’s athleticism and size could have done over time in baseball.

6. New England Patriots QB Tom Brady

A catcher and left-handed hitter, Brady was drafted by the Montreal Expos (18th round) in 1995 out of Junipero Serra (California) High School. Media reports have touted his strong arm behind the plate and power that once sent a ball over the fence and onto a bus, awakening a driver who thought he had parked a safe distance away. In 61 high school games, Brady batted .311 with eight home runs and 44 RBIs. The Expos pursued him following the draft but never offered a formal contract after he made clear he would pursue football at the University of Michigan. Pretty good decision there from both sides.

7. Houston Texans QB Brandon Weeden

Weeden pursued baseball as hard as any player in the NFL, playing five exclusive seasons in the minors after high school. A second-round pick of the New York Yankees in 2002, he never made it past Class A. After spending time with three organizations, he quit following the 2006 season. Weeden posted a 5.02 ERA in 374⅓ innings over 108 games. At the age of 24, he enrolled at Oklahoma State to begin his college football career in 2007. The rest, is, well … you know.

8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston

Baseball America considered Winston the second-best baseball prospect in the state of Alabama in 2012, and the Rangers made him a 15th-round pick in 2012 even after he made clear he planned to enroll in college. At Florida State, he played right field and pitched — with his fastball reportedly hitting 94 mph — and was also a switch-hitter. In two years of college baseball, he compiled a 1.94 ERA with nine saves while hitting .209 in 158 at-bats. Winston’s contract with the Bucs contains a clause prohibiting him from playing baseball.

9. San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick

Kaepernick was a ridiculous high school pitcher in Turlock, California, throwing two no-hitters and striking out 97 in 13 starts as a senior. He was the target of intense college baseball recruiting in 2006 and was considered a draftable prospect at the time, but he wanted to play college football. When his NFL prospects appeared bleak three years into his career at Nevada, the Chicago Cubs grabbed him in the 43rd round of the 2009 draft and tried to convince him to spend the summer in their minor league system. Kaepernick declined and continued focusing on football.

On deck

Tennessee Titans QB Matt Cassel

The high point of Cassel’s baseball career came in 1994, when he played first base for the Northridge (California) team that reached the finals of the Little League World Series. He appeared briefly as a pitcher at USC during the spring of 2004, striking out 10 in 8⅔ innings, and was drafted by the Oakland A’s (36th round) later that summer.

Miami Dolphins QB Matt Moore

While pursuing a college transfer for football, Moore dabbled in semi-pro baseball and was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels (22nd round) in 2004 as a third baseman. He decided to continue his football career at Oregon State.

Pittsburgh Steelers CB Senquez Golson

Golson hit .345 as a senior at Pascagoula (Mississippi) High School, and the Boston Red Sox made him an eighth-round draft choice in 2011. He went to Ole Miss instead to play both baseball and football, but he quit baseball after one season with a .204 batting average in 22 games.


Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio

Drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays (22nd round) in 1981, Del Rio instead accepted a scholarship to play football at USC. He played catcher for the Trojans as well, hitting .340.

General manager

Denver Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway

Elway was drafted twice, in the 18th round in 1979 by the Kansas City Royals and in the second round in 1981 by the New York Yankees. He was named the Yankees’ top prospect in 1982 and hit .318 with four home runs and 25 RBIs in Class A that year. That performance provided credibility to his threat to play baseball if the Baltimore Colts drafted him in 1983.

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