The best football players currently playing MLB instead

ByKiley McDaniel ESPN logo
Friday, January 12, 2024

With the college football season just wrapped up and the NFL playoffs getting started while MLB free agency continues to move slowly, it's a natural time to start thinking about the overlap between football and baseball.

There is a long history of players who have starred in both sports before ultimately picking a direction. Joe Mauer, Carl Crawford, Todd Helton and Jeff Samardzija are among those who picked baseball; Tom Brady, Kyler Murray, Travis Kelce, John Elway, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Calvin Johnson all played baseball before going on to NFL stardom. And, of course, Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders highlight the list of players who managed to do both professionally.

In my time covering the MLB draft and prospects, I often see players with backgrounds in both sports who are eventually pulled in one direction -- so let's have some fun by making teams of the best football players among those currently playing professional baseball.

Here are a few quick parameters:

To make our teams, players must be active in professional baseball and have a background in organized football through at least high school. We're looking for all-state prep stars who chose baseball over major college football offers, not dreaming on the potential of players who happen to be big and/or fast.

Since there are basically no former offensive or defensive linemen among baseball players -- I looked hard to make sure Rowdy Tellez andDaniel Vogelbachdidn't play football in high school -- we opted for a 7-on-7 format. For our purposes, that consists of a quarterback (who isn't allowed to run) and six receivers (one snaps the ball and is ineligible) against seven defenders of various types. Keep an eye on Ohio State defensive tackle Tywone Malone, who hit three homers at Ole Miss before transferring, as a potential trailblazer in this area.

Constructing teams this way made it easy to split players into groups since the quarterback is only there to pass and everyone else on the 14-man squad is liable to play both ways in the passing game.

We have just enough to do an AL vs. NL format (with a little bit of fudging on the last couple roster spots) -- so which baseball league boasts the better gridiron talent?

Team National League

QB Bubba Chandler (RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates, peak level: Double-A)

There are several options for quarterback in the NL (and weirdly not that many for the AL!). I'll go with Bubba Chandler, a recent four-star quarterback recruit who committed to Clemson but opted to sign with the Pirates for $3 million to be a right-handed pitcher and occasional hitter.

The other players that won't make my 14-man roster but are good enough athletes that they could have been used in multiple roles if the NL team was thinner include Colin Houck (SS, Mets, Rookie), Jay Allen (OF, Reds, High-A), and Nolan McLean (RHP, Mets, Low-A). They were all three-star football recruits for Power 5 schools who simply preferred baseball. Cubs RHP Cade Horton is a top-100 prospect in baseball who walked on as a quarterback at Oklahoma before ultimately opting to play only baseball in Norman. Nationals OF Brenner Cox and Giants SS Walker Martin were standout high school quarterbacks (Martin won three state titles as a quarterback in Colorado) who put up big numbers but didn't appear to be Power 5 recruits by my research.

NL pass catchers

WRMonte Harrison(OF, Milwaukee Brewers, MLB)

WR Andrew McCutchen (OF, Pittsburgh Pirates, MLB)

WR Lonnie White Jr. (OF, Pittsburgh Pirates, Low-A)

WR Brandon McIlwain (OF, New York Mets, Triple-A)

WR Sal Frelick (OF, Milwaukee Brewers, MLB)

WR Brandon Marsh (OF, Philadelphia Phillies, MLB)

Next up we have the primary receivers -- who are all capable of playing defense, as well.

Harrison was a four-star wide receiver recruit who signed with Nebraska but opted to turn pro in baseball out of high school. McCutchen is reported to have had an offer to play wide receiver at Miami, but he opted to sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates out of high school. White was committed to Penn State for football before joining the Pirates on a $1.5 million signing bonus. He played quarterback, wide receiver, and defensive back in high school, so I'll plan on him being on the field a lot.

McIlwain played quarterback for both South Carolina and Cal (18 games, 58% completions, 1363 yards, 4 TD, 9 INT) in addition to playing baseball at Cal. He has more college experience than Chandler as a quarterback, so I wanted to make McIlwain the QB of this team, but I had to get a little strategic with my roster. McIlwain would make a better receiver than Chandler, so I've slotted him here and he'll also be the second quarterback option.

Frelick was a standout dual-threat quarterback who won Gatorade Player of the Year in Massachusetts during high school in addition to playing hockey; he ended up playing only baseball at Boston College before being a first-round pick. Marsh was a notable prep receiver in Georgia with Division 1 offers, but had a huge senior season in baseball that catapulted him into the second round out of high school.

NL defense

LB Robby Snelling (LHP, San Diego Padres, Double-A)

LB Kyle Schwarber (OF, Philadelphia Phillies, MLB)

LB James Outman (OF, Los Angeles Dodgers, MLB)

LB Bryse Wilson (RHP, Milwaukee Brewers, MLB)

DB Jace Peterson (IF, Arizona Diamondbacks, MLB)

This group of defense-first players is pretty big and probably a little linebacker-heavy for 7-on-7, so we'll also need to rely on some of that deep group of receivers to be outside defenders. Snelling was a four-star athlete who primarily played linebacker in high school. Schwarber had D-1 offers as an inside linebacker, which shouldn't surprise anyone. Outman had FCS interest as a linebacker while Wilson was a standout prep linebacker but always had a brighter future in baseball. Peterson is the most qualified here, with two strong seasons playing cornerback at McNeese State before focusing on baseball and then going No. 58 overall in the 2011 MLB Draft.

ATH J.T. Realmuto (C, Philadelphia Phillies, MLB)

ATH Austin Riley (3B, Atlanta Braves, MLB)

I had two spots left, and with all of the accomplished high school quarterbacks could fill an athlete role, and couldn't turn down having Realmuto on the team. He and Riley both seem like they'd fit well in a tight end/linebacker role with plenty of arm to fill in at quarterback.

Riley was a prep quarterback before he shifted his focus to baseball for his last two years of high school while still punting for the football team. He was all-state as a punter and had a walk-on offer at Mississippi State (where his father also punted) if he got to campus, but the Braves made sure that didn't happen. Riley was one of the first two names that came to mind when I began making my teams, and while there's no kicking game in 7-on-7, I like having that aspect covered.

Team American League

QB Hunter Renfroe (OF, Kansas City Royals, MLB)

Remember that deep group of quarterback candidates in the NL? That is not the case in the AL, as Renfroe (a three-year starter in high school) is one of only two options I could come up with here. The choice was made easier because the other option was Byron Buxton -- and I'll remind you that quarterbacks cannot run in 7-on-7.

AL pass catchers

TE Giancarlo Stanton (DH, New York Yankees, MLB)

TE Aaron Judge (OF, New York Yankees, MLB)

WR Byron Buxton (OF, Minnesota Twins, MLB)

WR Billy Hamilton (OF, Free Agent, MLB)

WR Jordyn Adams (OF, Los Angeles Angels, MLB)

RB Taylor Trammell (OF, Seattle Mariners, MLB)

There are several different types of players filling out the primary offensive spots on the AL side. Stanton played with or against a number of future NFL players in high school and had an offer from Pete Carroll at USC. He was a 6-foot-5, 210-pound wide receiver and cornerback at that point, but it seems likely he would eventually have grown into a pass rusher and/or tight end if he didn't sign with the Marlins out of high school.

Judge was recruited by some of the top football programs in the country as a tight end, but preferred baseball and went to Fresno State before being a first-round pick of the Yankees. Buxton was a quarterback, wide receiver, and defensive back on his high school team and will be on the field a lot for the AL squad.

There is a little less depth on the AL side, so I'll fudge things a bit to get Hamilton in here as he played for the Rays and White Sox last season. He is currently a free agent but he has to have a spot on one of our teams as the first player who scouts joked with me had 90 speed on the 20-80 scouting scale. He signed to play wide receiver for Mississippi State out of high school but was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds as the 57th overall pick in 2009.

Adams was a four-star wide receiver committed to North Carolina (he also had a viral dunk posterizing a classmate) and wasn't seen as a real baseball prospect until his senior spring when he had a fantastic NHSI tournament in front of over 100 scouts, drawing Buxton comparisons. The Angels selected him 17th overall in 2018 and he made his MLB debut last summer. Trammell led Georgia preps in rushing yards and touchdowns as a senior and was asked to walk on as a running back at Georgia Tech, but he signed with the Reds as the 35th overall pick instead.

AL defense

LB Adam Hackenberg (C, Chicago White Sox, Triple-A)

DB Anthony Alford (OF, Free Agent, MLB)

ATH Joc Pederson (OF, Free Agent, MLB)

ATH Adley Rutschman (C, Baltimore Orioles, MLB)

ATH Brett Phillips (OF, Chicago White Sox, MLB)

ATH Sean Newcomb (LHP, Oakland Athletics, MLB)

ATH Max Clark (OF, Detroit Tigers, Low-A)

I've been amazed by the Hackenberg family for some time.

  • Christian was a Penn State quarterback and second-round pick of the Jets
  • Brandon played soccer at Penn State and was a Major League Soccer first-round pick by Orlando
  • Adam was a catcher at Clemson, 18th-round pick of the White Sox and is on the verge of the big leagues
  • Drue was a pitcher at Virginia Tech and was a second-round pick of the Braves last summer
  • The parents of those four brothers are Erick (played football at Virginia) and Nicole (played volleyball at Lehigh)
  • Adam's uncle J.D. played football at Army

On top of all of that, Adam was also a two-time all-state linebacker and was drafted out of high school as a baseball player, where his coach was should-be-in-the-Hall-of-Fame pitcher Billy Wagner. (I didn't need to share all of that but I did the research and now I think this is my Roman Empire.)

OK, time to fudge things a little bit more by adding two more free agents to the AL squad and finishing off these rosters. It didn't feel right to take Alford (who last played for the Guardians, then in Korea) as the quarterback for this team as a free agent, but it feels better grabbing the former Ole Miss safety and Southern Miss quarterback as a defensive back and backup quarterback since I was running out of options. Pederson has never played in the AL so that's the biggest reach, but I needed to get one more player on the AL and to mention that Pederson played alongside NFL star Davante Adams as a high school receiver -- and hey, who knows, maybe Pederson will sign with an AL team in the coming weeks.

I mentioned that Austin Riley was one of the first two players I thought of for this exercise and it's because another former kicker in the big leagues, Adley Rutschman, was the first. He was a running back, linebacker and kicker in high school, turned down six-figure offers to be a catcher at Oregon State and before becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the MLB Draft, he was the kickoff specialist for 11 games as a freshman. Not only did he force 20 touchbacks on 54 kickoffs, recover his own onside kick, and make three tackles, but one of them was on Christian McCaffery.

Filling out the rest of the roster is an all-county wide receiver from Florida in Brett Phillips, who also played both ways. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Newcomb was getting scholarship offers as a tight end when he started to focus only on baseball. Clark has been focused on baseball as his long-term vocation for some time, but the plus-plus runner is also electric on the gridiron.

The Verdict

The NL has a clear advantage at quarterback; the AL has the edge at receiver due to an advantage in size for jump balls with Stanton, Judge, and Newcomb and also in pure speed with Hamilton, Buxton, and Adams (and Stanton and Buxton will play both ways). The NL has more pure defensive talent, but I think Alford and Rutschman are X-factors, so the winner of our first AL vs. NL 7-on-7 football crossover Pro Bowl is ... the AL, in a hard-fought, close victory.

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