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These players would make intriguing Olympians

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By Eric Edholm

The London Olympics kick off Friday and dominate the news cycle for the next two weeks. Even with training camps opening across the country, the NFL has taken a bit of a backseat in terms of hype — especially with the Penn State saga also taking a lot of the headlines.

But we want the NFL to get its due, considering all the fine, diverse athletes the sport features. And with that in mind, we’ll take you through each of the Olympic sports and pick out which NFL player might have the best chance to succeed.

With so many players to choose from, the task is daunting — so, as always, please leave your suggestions below.

The list, alphabetically by event:

Archery — Vikings DE Jared Allen was born for this. And if you make it to the 3:10 mark of the video, you’ll see that Allen is not affected by extreme conditions, which is good considering the unpredictable London weather. Allen would be a favorite for the gold medal and automatically a tabloid darling of the British press.

Badminton — A finesse sport that requires fast feet, quick reactions, smarts and cunning. Something tells me Patriots WR Wes Welker would be excellent at this. A sport where being a pest really helps.

Basketball — Considering the U.S. team’s apparent lack of size in the frontcourt, we’re going big here. It needs a rebounder, and though there are a few good tight ends (Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez, both D-I basketball players, or Jermichael Finley, an AAU stud) and defensive ends (former UNC reserve Julius Peppers and high school star Calais Campbell) to choose from, we’ll go with Saints TE Jimmy Graham, who played four years of hoops at Miami, averaged 4.8 rebounds in his career and actually is eighth in school history in blocks (108). At 6-6, 260 pounds with 35-inch vines for arms, Graham would give Tyson Chandler some help in the ball-swatting department and his red hair would complement the U.S.’s predominantly blue-and-white uniforms.

Beach volleyball — This one is all about the vertical leap. Chiefs WR Jon Baldwin stands 6-foot-4 and change, has long arms (33½ inches) and put up a 42-inch vertical leap at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2011. We like the choice of Baldwin on paper, although he grew up in Western Pennsylvania and plays in Kansas City — not exactly close to, you know, beaches.

Boxing — First off, USA boxing is in a state of disrepair, so we're happy to help energize the roster a bit. The first time I saw 49ers RB Brandon Jacobs up close as a rookie with the Giants, my first thought was: heavyweight boxer. So I was not stunned to read this offseason that he was moonlighting as a boxer — it gives him options in case that loaded backfield in San Fran proves to be too crowded. Falcons DE Ray Edwards, who is a little bigger than Jacobs and might have something to say about the heavyweight division, boxed a lot during the lockout. So did Colts S Tom Zbikowski, who would fit nicely in the 91-kg class, just a shade more than his listed 200 pounds. Zbikowski feel right at home in that group, whose favorites include guys named (no joke) Usyk, Mammadov and Pulev.

Canoe/kayak — The top kayakers are fairly tall and lean and possess great upper-body strength. Jets 2012 seventh-round LB Demario Davis bench-pressed 225 pounds 32 times at the Combine and also put in a mean time in the 60-yard shuttle (11.65 seconds), so you figure he has good endurance, too. Plus, he’s from Arkansas — lots of rivers and creeks there.

Cycling — Great Britain’s Mark Cavendish, the 2011 Tour de France points winner and the favorite to win gold in the men’s road race in London, is a shade over 5-foot-9 with a lean frame. Reminds me vaguely of Raiders WR Jacoby Ford, a fine athlete who spent a lot of time on the stationary bike last season, working out various hamstring injuries.

Diving — I am thinking about an acrobatic receiver here. Is there a more appropriate pick than Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald? He pulls off weekly versions of the “Reverse 3½-Somersault Half-Twist,” adjusting well to the Cardinals quarterbacks’ routinely off-target passes with ease. For Rio 2016, when Fitz will be 32, we’ll tab Bengals WR A.J. Green.

Equestrian — This is right up Chad Johnson’s alley. Fitting, too, that he changed his name recently back to Johnson from the less couth Ochocinco, which is more befitting of this refined sport.

Fencing — You might not realize there are three subsets of this sport, by weapon — epee, foil and saber. Epeeists tend to be tall and skinny, with long reaches. Foilists tend to be skinny but are not always tall. But saberists can be a little thicker than their other fencing counterparts. And it’s in this category where we select Raiders backup QB Matt Leinart. Why? Well, for one, he’s lefthanded, which would make him a tougher fighting style to deal with. But also, it would just be cool to see Leinart rattling sabers with a bunch of skinny Eastern European hipster dudes. His extensive L.A. club experience should have afforded him years of practice in this discipline.

Field hockey — Yes, it’s a men’s event, too. And you might be surprised to find out that one of the world’s best players, Australia’s Jamie Dwyer, stands a mere 5-8 and 155 pounds. So we’ll go with similarly sized — but far stronger and thicker — 49ers RB Kendall Hunter, who displayed his speed (4.5-second 40-yard dash), short-area quickness (6.74-second 3-cone drills) and explosive leg strength (10-foot-2 standing broad jump) at the 2011 Combine. Dwyer, 33, is one of the sport’s smartest players and a future coach who has started up some field hockey clinics in Australia, although Qantas eliminated the San Francisco-to-Sydney direct flights in 2011, which would have made it just that much tougher for Hunter to get across the pond during last year’s lockout for a few lessons.

Gymnastics — There are too many events to choose only one, but one common trait that appears to be a prerequisite in this sport is flamboyance. Pommel horse specialist Louis Smith was a contestant on the British TV show X-Factor, and USA’s John Orozco has had a few bit parts in the popular Law & Order series. Dum-dum. Considering his size, spry Eagles WR DeSean Jackson, with his flair for the dramatic, would appear to be an obvious choice. Let’s just hope he doesn’t prematurely celebrate his floor exercise routine. If D-Jax jumps the gun, Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul would make an excellent substitute for the floor, and he probably wouldn’t do too badly on the pommel, rings or vault.

Handball — Euros tend to dominate this team sport, which looks reminiscent of a sixth-grade gym class event after they were fed amphetamines. Of the 12 countries vying for gold this year only one — England — is represented by current NFL players, and the Brits are picking up the sport for the first time in the Olympics since 1984. (South Korean-born Hines Ward picked a bad year to walk away from football, although his country is far from the favorites.) Giants OL Dave Diehl is Croatian, and they’re competing for a medal, but he was born in Chicago. And besides, we can’t really picture the 6-5, 305-pound Diehl running up and down the court. Allow us a little latitude here. Patriots P Zoltan Mesko is from Romania, a country that is not in this year’s Olympic handball competition, but Hungary borders Romania and, well, Mesko is just a fascinating guy we can picture playing this strange sport that everyone watching at home will be convinced they can dominate at. Mesko’s coach, Bill Belichick, has Croatian roots himself, so maybe he’d allow his punter to chase this hypothetical dream. (Or not.)

Judo — Finally, some love for a big dog. France’s Teddy “Bear” Riner is the odds-on favorite in the +100 kg weight class and he’s a mountainous 6-8 and 289 pounds, so we’ll counter with a king-sized dancing bear of our own. Checking in at 6-6 and 272 pounds, Jaguars TE Marcedes Lewis might give up a few inches and pounds but would prove to be a quick study as a judoka, we think, because of his offseason training in mixed martial arts. But as a serious medal candidate in the 90 kg class, Panthers S Haruki Nakamura, who has credited his background in judo (the son of two champions, including a Japanese father) as having helped him become a good football player, could drop seven pounds from his listed 205 and do quite well for himself.

Modern pentathlon — In this bizarre event, which sounds about as old school as anything going on in London, competitors shoot pistols, fence, swim, show jump (what the …?) and run. And though that might sound like a litany of illegal activity to Roger Goodell, we’re not going to make a sordid joke here about NFL players and the personal-conduct code. (We’re just not, OK?) But clearly this event summons well-rounded athletes of small-to-medium size frame with good aim and a little bit of flair. I’ve never seen Browns jack-of-all-trades Josh Cribbs show jump or fence, but how bad could he be? The dude’s good at just about everything he tries.

Rowing — This sport is all about cox and sculls. So please welcome to the team the Ravens’ long-armed long-snapper Morgan (Cox) and lanky Cardinals QB John (“Skels”) Skelton. A stretch? Yep — but then again, so is this entire column.

Sailing — Jets QB Mark Sanchez, who may or may not have been born on a yacht, seems like he would be good at this. And, no, he would not team up with Tim Tebow in the two-person dinghy for the Men’s 470.

Shooting — Accuracy, precision, concentration and steel-cold nerves are required. Sounds like Packers QB Aaron Rodgers to me. And you thought Mike McCarthy’s skeet-shooting trip with Packers players this summer was all in the name of team camaraderie …

Soccer — The U.S. men failed to qualify for London. They needed guys who can score, period. Then, who better to have helped them out than Cam Newton, who could translate his nose for the endzone (14 rushing touchdowns as a rookie) to crossers and headers off corner kicks? Would you be able to outmuscle an athlete like that near the opposing goalmouth? Nope. (Although as a semi-Chelsea fan, I must say I see a lot of Claude Makélélé in Darren Sproles, who would make a killer midfielder.)

Swimming — They come in all shapes and sizes, really, but most great swimmers tend to have large feet and hands, long arms and great fast-twitch muscles. How about new Vikings WR Jerome Simpson? His 2008 pre-draft results in Indy — a 4.47 40-time, a Combine-record 11-foot-4 broad jump and 35-inch arms — make him a nearly ideal candidate. Not convinced? Swimmers also require excellent lung capacity, and Simpson’s marijuana incident suggests that his bronchi might be getting regular exercise.

Table tennis — You thought we would leave Tebow home? He finds a place at the table and spreads goodwill across the pond, one drop shot at a time.

Tae kwon do — Like boxing and judo, there are a lot of weight classes. But the largest competitors check in around 6-1 and 185, on average. Crazy as it sounds, I am thinking about a punter here. After all, it's half kicking; the “tae” part means “to strike with foot.” There are some shockingly athletic punters in the NFL. Three or four years ago, I might have gone with Buffalo’s Brian Moorman, a great athlete, but he's 36 years old. Baltimore’s Sam Koch is a bigger punter who has laid licks on unsuspecting returners. But our choice is completely ripped Giants P Steve Weatherford, who is a tidy 210 pounds with five percent body fat. He’s a total fitness freak and works on his punting with the discipline of a golfer: through mind-numbing repetition. That works well because the sport is as much about mental discipline as anything else. Or so Wikipedia informs me.

Tennis — An individual sport with elite athletes preening for the camera and complaining to refs. Randy Moss? We think so, too. Watching the lanky Moss track down shots for two hours would be straight cash, homey.

Track and field — There are several events here, so let’s go rapid fire. If Jacobs got beat out for boxing, he might excel in the hammer throw. Buccaneers TE Chase Coffman is buried on the depth chart in Tampa, but many of us remember his college hurdling ability fondly. I’m not convinced Chris Johnson is the fastest man in the NFL, so we’ll call on Texans PR Trindon Holliday (one return for zero yards in one career game) and his blinding speed to take on the Usain Bolts and Yohan Blakes of the world. Ron Jaworski says Joe Flacco has the strongest arm in the NFL, so he’s our pick for the javelin. Shot put — those guys are usually big and really strong — is perfect for an offensive or defensive lineman. The Browns have two former standout shot putters on their offensive line, OTs Joe Thomas and rookie Mitchell Schwartz, so we’ll let them slug it out. Same goes for discus. But who handles the decathlon? The 10-event, two-day spectacular includes running (100, 400 and 1,500 meters), jumping (long and high), running and jumping (110 meter hurdles, pole vault) and throwing stuff (shot put, discus and javelin). Can Newton handle this one, too? No? OK, then we choose Robert Griffin III. Dude’s a freak. He was a track star in high school and was an All-American in the 400-meter hurdles after finishing third at the NCAA Outdoor Championships as a freshman at Baylor in 2008 before turning his attention to football.

Trampoline — The favorite in this event — China’s lovable Dong Dong — stands 5-foot-6 and weighs 126 pounds. We’ll nominate Redskins RS Brandon Banks, another double-alliteration mighty mite who goes 5-7 and (a whopping) 155 pounds.

Triathlon — Don’t count the big guys out. Former NFL lineman Darryl Haley, a 270-pound defensive tackle in the 1980s, turned himself into a fantastic triathlete. The Ravens might not like reading this, but I think I just found Haloti Ngata’s post-career career. I wouldn’t put it past him.

Volleyball — Didn’t we already pick a guy for this? I am not sure what the biggest difference would be between beach and indoor, other than shoes, so I am mostly flying blind here. Browns third-string TE Jordan Cameron (not to be confused with Saints DE Cameron Jordan) caught only 16 passes in college and another six as a rookie in Cleveland. But this guy is a phenomenal athlete who played college basketball at two schools (Brigham Young and USC) and was a standout volleyball player at his high school in Southern California. He might not possess typical outside hitter height at 6-foot-5 (the top guys can be as tall as 6-foot-10), but Jordan’s long arms (33½ inches) and vertical jump (37½, at the 2011 Combine) more than make up for it. He’s also a good-looking cat who won’t bring down the US team’s rep in the Olympic village.

Water polo — These might be among the best athletes at the Games. They stay afloat forever, they look good doing it and end up swimming about a mile and a half in the course of a match. We need a horse. Polo players aren’t huge; they’re just sick athletes. We’d be happy with the Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson, who might be one of the 10 best pure athletes in the NFL, or the Eagles’ LeSean McCoy, who was on the field more than any running back last season.

Weightlifting — NFL players are among the strongest people in the world, and yet even they pale in comparison to the greatest Olympic power lifters. Granted, footballers are not practicing the clean and jerk or the snatch on their off days, but you get the idea: They are just not in the same universe. Example: A 123-pound Turkish man holds both the snatch (302 pounds) and clean-and-jerk records (369), marks that strong-like-oxen 200-pounders such as Bucs rookie RD Doug “Muscle Hamster” Martin would struggle to match. Still, we’ll find some players who, if they gave up football and lifted full time, might have a shot. There are eight Olympic weight classes for men, but we would never stand a chance in most of them. Our best hope might come at 94 kg (207 lbs.), where it’s hard not to throw our weight behind Maurice Jones-Drew, who lives up to his nickname of “Pocket Hercules.” Plus, as a holdout currently, he has little more to do than lift weights. The compact Superball can squat more than 500 pounds, which at least would put him in the same area code as the Moldovans, Uzbeks and Ukranians who tend to dominate this sport.

Wrestling — There are a ton of great candidates in the NFL, even with former college star Stephen Neal retired from the game. Several current players are former high school champions and college standouts. John Madden always wanted his offensive linemen to wrestle, and Titans GM Ruston Webster showed his affinity for the sport in April when Tennessee drafted LB Zach Brown and DT Mike Martin, both former standout grapplers (plus DT Karl Klug a year ago). Fellow rookie, Lions OT Reilly Reiff, had a 121-1 record in high school as a heavyweight, so he’s the choice. But had this been Atlanta 1996, it would have been a no-brainer: Ray Lewis, a two-time high school champ, could have skipped his rookie season with the Ravens, shed a few pounds and given America a gold-silver combo with Kurt Angle in the 100 kg class. Instead, we’ll just recruit Lewis to pump up the rest of our gifted underdog athletes. Every team — real or not — needs one of those, right?

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