Word was that the Cleveland Browns would draft a tight end in this year’s NFL draft. The Reese’s Senior Bowl highlighted several blue-chip prospects including Alabama’s Cameron Latu and Luke Musgrave of Oregon State. Musgrave is the nephew of Browns’ coach Bill Musgrave.
The better clubs in the NFL have a stud at the tight end position. From Travis Kelce to Mark Andrews to George Kittle, these teams employ a guy who is an excellent receiver and a qualified blocker as well.
Cleveland has David Njoku, who makes almost as much as Kelce. The issue here is, while Kelce is an annual Pro Bowl recipient, Njoku has never sniffed the All-Star designation. Yet, their pay is along the same lines.
Maybe the Browns could nab a young Kelce in the draft and develop him.
Not to wait until April’s draft, GM Andrew Berry inked QB Deshaun Watson’s old tight end from the Houston Texans in Jordan Akins (6’-4”, 243 pounds) to a two-year deal worth a maximum of $5.2 million.
Other than the familiarity of receiving throws from Watson, who is this guy? If you play fantasy football, you know who every tight end is in the league in case you need one. But for the rest of us, why don’t we see him on highlight videos each week? Is Akins purely a blocker? If so, why didn’t Cleveland simply hang onto Pharaoh Brown, the best blocking tight end in the league?
Akins (age 30) grew up in McDonough, Georgia, a small town of less than 25,000. It is just 30 minutes southeast of Atlanta along I-75. The town originally was a stop for the stagecoach line from New York to New Orleans.
Union Grove High School is where Akins played football and baseball in Georgia Division 5A. He was a running quarterback and earned All-Conference honors as a sophomore. As a junior, Akins scored 26 touchdowns and had almost as many rushing yards as passing. In his senior season, he had outgrown the QB position weighing 192 pounds, and switched to receiver. In both his junior and senior campaigns he was named All-State.
A lot of D-1 programs wanted him for the next level. He was recruited by LSU, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, UCF, and Georgia.
Meanwhile, Akins was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the third round of the 2010 MLB June Amateur Draft 103rd overall. Instead of heading to a big D-1 school, he signed with the Rangers for $350,000.
He batted right and threw right-handed as an outfielder. At the time, he was 6’-3” and weighed 192 pounds.
The Rangers designated him to the Arizona Complex League (ACL), an 18-team setup for rookie players. He was a roster member of the ACL Rangers and in his first year, he played in 36 games, hit .187 with 107 at-bats, a mere 20 hits with eight RBIs, five walks, and 35 strikeouts.
Needless to say, Akins wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
In 2011, Akins again was designated to the ACL and saw 48 game starts. His batting improved to .283 as he got 51 hits in 180 plate appearances with six walks and 42 strikeouts. Most players who end up in the ACL are moved up during their second season, but Akins was not and played out the year.
The following year, he was moved up to the Low-A level South Atlantic League now playing for the Hickory Crawdads located in Hickory, North Carolina. He was playing a full schedule with 120 games. He hit .199 with 427 at-bats, 85 hits, scored 57 runs, and slapped 11 home runs with 12 walks, 162 strikeouts, and 39 RBIs.
Even though his numbers weren’t great with an emphasis on his collection of strikeouts, the Rangers promoted him in 2013 to their High-A club in Spokane, Washington the Spokane Indians. If he performed well, he could be sent up to AA and eventually AAA which is the next level behind the parent club and a Major League career.
Meanwhile, during each offseason, UCF head coach George O’Leary would contact Akins to see how the baseball life was going. During conversations, O’Leary would ask him if he decided to return to school, would he consider UCF? Akins promised him that if he did come back, UCF would be his choice to pursue college football.
But the High-A level was too much for Akins. His fielding and throwing weren’t the issues, his batting was just not up to par. He had problems with the curve ball. When Michael Jordan left the NBA to pursue a career in baseball, he was designated to the AA level and the curve ball killed his batting average along with dreams of one day being in the bigs.
Each year, all players owned by the Rangers show up in Arizona for spring training. As this process moves along, the lower-level players are designated out to the various teams of the farm system whereas the better players remain and compete to see who is sent to AAA and who makes the big club’s opening day roster.
It just so happened that Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was in attendance who had once played in the Los Angeles Angels organization at the High-A level before his NFL career.
Wilson addressed the team and talked about baseball and life in the minor leagues. He then fielded questions when Akins asked him when did he know it was time to go back to playing football? Wilson’s response was that it was strictly a gut feeling.
The strange part of that response was that Akins already had that notion.
In 2013 with Spokane at the High-A level, Akins batted .209 with 91 at-bats in just 22 games with 19 hits, four HRs, three walks, and 24 strikeouts. With just a little over 26% of games played on Spokane’s schedule, the Rangers sent him back down to Hickory where he played in 95 contests and hit .221 with 129 strikeouts.
Akins was now a 21-year old athlete who wasn’t going anywhere as a professional baseball player. Instead of an elevation of his career, he was going backward. And the only thing that was progressing was his strikeout totals.
Football still had a place in his heart and in his mind.
Old dude freshman
Akins accepted O’Leary’s offer to join the University of Central Florida in the fall of 2014. While the other freshmen were 18-year-old kids, Akins was a grown-ass man who had last played football four years ago. He was first installed at wide receiver since that is what he last played in high school.
In his first year back with full pads, he caught just 12 catches for 135 yards with seven starts. But he also returned 15 kicks for 363 yards with a 24.2 yards per return average. He finished with 498 all-purpose yards.
Going into the 2015 season, Akins was slotted at receiver plus was the kickoff and punt return man. He then suffered an ACL injury to his right knee in the first game.
O’Leary told the Orlando Sentinel in a Monday press conference after the prognosis was correct:
“First play of the game, (Akins) goes down, so we’ve just been snake-bitten there. But somebody else has to step up. That’s the nature of the gamey news conference. It’s not always the key guys that are always getting injured like that, that’s what’s happening right now. A younger guy has to step up right now and take (Akins) place.”
Going back to the spring game, UCF had lost a total of eight starters on offense including Akins due to injuries. This was a program that had garnered national ranking status. The good news for Akins is that the injury was only an ACL stretch to which he could return later in the year. He was able to suit up for three games and had 14 receptions for 152 yards with two scores.
In his junior and senior years, he was fully healthy and played in all 21 games. His combined stats include 55 catches for 862 yards with six touchdowns and a 15.5 yards per reception average. With being a full-time starter on offense, he no longer returned kicks.
But more importantly, in his junior year new head coach Scott Frost switched Akins to tight end after the first four games since he had filled out and went into his senior year as the starting tight end.
“Coaches came to me and said ‘you’re gonna be a tight end.’ I told them I would do anything for the team, and I made the adjustment,” Akins explained to NicholsonStudentMedia.com. “It is different, having your hand in the dirt and blocking 250-plus pound guys. I had to gain some weight and learn how to use my weight and learn the whole blocking scheme.”
Akins was known as a complete competitor no matter what the competition was. Suddenly with the position change, he would no longer line up on the outside but was used more in blocking plays. He faced challenges with the new position, but learned on the fly and gradually became a major part of the offense. And along the way found confidence in his new role.
Part of that new role was being the seasoned veteran who freshmen called “the old man” since he was now 25 years old.
At season’s end, Akins was selected First Team All-American Athletic Conference plus named to the John Mackey Award Preseason Watch List, honoring the nation’s top tight ends. He was also selected to the AAC Fifth Anniversary Team.
Akins was invited to play in the Reese’s Senior Bowl which is coached by full NFL coaching staffs. It just so happened that Akin’s coach was Bill O’Brien and the entire Houston Texans coaching staff.
Playing professionally Part 2
Having spent a solid week with the Texans’ staff, they selected him in the third round of the 2018 NFL draft. Akins signed a four-year deal worth $3.32 million with a signing bonus of $761,520.
In his rookie season, he played in all 16 games with six starts and had 17 receptions for 225 yards with no touchdowns and a 13.2 yards per catch average. The following season he had 36 receptions within nine starts for 418 yards with two scores.
For the next three seasons, those numbers would become the norm as he started just 11 games and played in 39. Akins spent four seasons in Houston, starting 23 games and recording 114 catches for 1,260 yards and three touchdowns.
When his rookie deal was over, Akins, now 29, inked a one-year contract with the New York Football Giants who had just hired Texans tight ends coach Andy Bischoff. But Akins was released on the last cut-down day and returned to Houston where he was initially placed on the practice squad.
With the Texans sitting at 1-3-1, before Week 7, he was activated to the 53-man roster. For the year he had three starts with 54 targets, 37 receptions for 495 yards, five touchdowns, a 13.4 average, and 23 first-down conversions.
Akins and Watson were teammates during the 2018, 2019, and 2020 seasons, all Pro Bowl years for Watson. So the familiarity is there.
The move to sign Akins provides Cleveland with another experienced tight end, but perhaps not one to view as a starting candidate. Keep in mind his 23 NFL starts came in 58 games played. This displays a lack of regular starting snaps. The Browns are in a position of need at tight end which usually will carry three on the roster during the season. Njoku and Harrison Bryant are the returning tight ends.
Even with the addition of the veteran Akins, the Browns still seem to be in a position to draft a starting-caliber tight end in the second or third rounds.