Carolina Panthers

NFL must decide if injury-plagued Duke tight end Braxton Deaver worth risk

Duke tight end Braxton Deaver (89) leaps over Boston College defensive back Isaac Yiadom (20) for a first down in October.
Duke tight end Braxton Deaver (89) leaps over Boston College defensive back Isaac Yiadom (20) for a first down in October. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Braxton Deaver has been at Duke so long you’d think he’d be a doctor by now.

The former Providence High football player has been in Durham for six years after the NCAA granted the tight end a rare sixth year of eligibility following two ACL tears.

On Wednesday, Deaver got the opportunity to show scouts from 29 NFL teams that he’s the tight end everyone thought he could be in 2013 - before the second knee tear.

“Halfway through my sixth year I was like, ‘Man, I’m ready to get out of here,’ ” Deaver said jokingly. “I love this place and the program, but I was so ready for my shot. I’m just ecstatic that I got it and it went well.”

Deaver’s pro day probably couldn’t have gone any better. At 6-foot-4 and 246 pounds, he put up 26 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, had a 31 1/2 inch vertical leap, a 9-foot-2 broad jump and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.76 seconds.

Those numbers, matched with football intelligence and his highlights film, would get someone like him drafted any year. But that’s not all to his story.

Deaver has undergone four surgeries during his college career. He tore his left ACL in 2012 and didn’t play. He tore his right ACL in 2014 and didn’t play. Between those two surgeries, he had minor thumb surgery and one to repair a left patella fracture.

NFL teams usually don’t like drafting damaged goods, so there’s a question of whether he’ll be selected in a late round or sign with a team as an undrafted free agent.

“My health,” Deaver said when asked what scouts want to know about first. “That’s the bottom line. I think my tape speaks for itself. I can catch the football. I can hit people in the mouth.

“I think I’m one of the best tight ends in the draft. My injuries blackballed me a little bit.”

Deaver and those around him say he’s 100 percent healthy, and if an NFL team can be assured of that, he’s still a risk. But he might be a risk worth taking.

Deaver starred at Providence High, where he had 2,554 receiving yards and 35 touchdowns in his final three seasons there. He arrived at Duke in 2010 but redshirted that season.

He saw little action in his first season, but he showed promise. Then he tore his ACL and sat out 2012.

Deaver bounced back in 2013, though, catching 43 passes for 600 yards and was named to third-team All-ACC. Again, he was poised to go even further the next season, but an ACL tear to his other knee kept him out of the 2014 season.

That’s when he had a decision to make.

“At first I was real selfish about it, and I wanted to go get my shot at the league,” Deaver said.

He could have rehabbed the knee, focused on his NFL future and decided he was done at Duke.

“The more I really thought about it, I owe everything to this program and Coach (David Cutcliffe) and the training staff. I owe everything to my education here,” Deaver said. “I wasn’t going to pass that up.

“If I was going to get better, it was going to be here. That was the turning point for me. I quickly realized that after I let the emotions diffuse and settle. I realize this is the only place I need to be.”

Deaver continued but needed to build confidence in the knee. Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said it wasn’t until the fourth game last season that he noticed Deaver had full confidence in his knee.

He caught 21 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns last season, a long way from his 2013 season.

“I think what gets lost in that is we were pretty talented at the position,” Roper said. “D.J. Reeves was a veteran football player and put up some numbers (13 catches for 104 yards), and Eric Schneider put up some good numbers (15 catches for 123 yards).

“So if you just take the numbers of the position and put them together, the output was there. To me, that showed who Braxton is. ‘Just tell me what you want me to do, Coach, and I’ll get it done.’ ”

During his time at Duke, Deaver reached out to one of his football idols. The Charlotte native said he respects the way Panthers tight end Greg Olsen plays, and Deaver contacted the Pro Bowler through Olsen’s HEARTest Yard Foundation.

“I truly try to model my game after him,” Deaver said of Olsen. “We texted a little bit. I wanted to know how he, throughout his college career, prepared and what he did to sharpen his skills as a tight end. We haven’t spoken in a while, but I look up to him as such a role model.”

For Deaver, Wednesday was about showing scouts that he is still the player everyone thought he could be. His 40 time was as good as he could have asked for, and he caught every pass from former Georgia Tech and James Madison quarterback Vad Lee, a Durham native.

“I just want teams to know that I’m that person,” Deaver said. “I have that ‘it’ factor. I have that ‘give me the ball on fourth-and-1’ mentality. I’m here to ball.”

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