MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA: How Fells made the switch from basketball to football

Posted Mar 11, 2017

Tight end Darren Fells was a basketball player first who turned to football to prolong his career as a professional athlete.

Darren Fells is being brought in to give the Detroit Lions a blocking specialist they need from the tight end position in order to upgrade the running game, but Fells has another sport in his background that he has been told will improve fellow Lions tight end Eric Ebron.

“According to coach, he (Ebron) needs to work on his basketball skills a little,” Fells said in a conference-call interview Saturday after signing with the Lions. “I might get with him ... help him like that.”

Which coach dissed Ebron’s basketball skills?

“I don’t know if I can rat out a coach like that,” Fells replied good-naturedly. “Get him (mad) at Eric.”

Fells, 30, was a basketball player first who turned to football to prolong his career as a professional athlete. He played basketball and football in high school in California, but basketball only in his four years at the University California-Irvine.

After leaving UC-Irvine and going undrafted by the NBA, Fells played four and a half seasons of pro basketball in Europe, Argentina and Mexico.

After Fells' last stop in basketball with Obras Sanitarias in Argentina in 2012, his older brother, Daniel, told him to try pro football. Daniel, also a tight end, played seven NFL seasons with the St. Louis Rams, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and New York Giants.

Fells was cut at the end of training camp by the Seattle Seahawks in 2013 and signed to the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad later that year.

Fells made the Cardinals’ active roster in 2014 and spent the last three seasons with them. He played 38 games with 24 starts. He had 40 catches for 536 yards, four touchdowns and an average of 13.4 yards per catch.

At 6-7 and 281 pounds, Fells has the physical build to play basketball and football.

The physical aspect wasn’t the most difficult part of making the transition from the basketball court to the football field, Fells said. He gradually got a foothold on establishing himself as a contributor to the Cardinals’ offense.

“The transition mentally was probably the hardest part for me,” he said. “I would say after my second year in the league, everything started clicking for me. I started getting that confident that I made the right choice.”

General manager Bob Quinn has made improving the running game a priority this offseason. The running game ranked 30th last year, and it has been a consistently weak area in recent seasons.

“I view the running game as the entire offense,” Quinn said in his end-of-season press conference. “Offensive line? Yes. Running backs? Yes. Fullbacks? Yes. Tight end? Yes. Wide receivers blocking in the running game? Yes.”

The Cardinals ranked 18th last year, averaging 108.2 yards per game. The Lions averaged 81.9. Cardinals running back David Johnson rushed for 1,239 yards, seventh most in the league. Theo Riddick led the Lions with 357.

Fells’ said his blocking ability stems from playing basketball.

“I’m such a good blocker, mostly because that’s the stereotype that basketball players can’t block,” Fells said. “I put a lot of emphasis on that.”

That’s contrary to what most people would think. There’s an old saying that basketball is a contact sport, and football is a collision sport.

“I like to believe that I’m a very physical player,” Fells said. “The first (basketball) game overseas, I fouled out with all offensive fouls. They called charges. I guess that showed a little bit of physicalness.

“I always prided myself on being a great offensive rebounder. It takes a lot of effort to get to the rim.”

Now we’ll see how he and Ebron match up in the paint.