J.R. Niklos, a fullback signed and released by NFL teams more than 20 times in six years, hopes his new one-year deal with the Cleveland Browns is his chance to finally make it.
Niklos, a native of Worthington (near Columbus), played the last three seasons with the Frankfurt Galaxy of the NFL’s development league in Europe.
When the NFL announced last month that it was folding the European enterprise, the journeyman Niklos was again looking for work. He found it with the Browns, his favorite childhood team.
“I’m very excited,” said the 6-foot-2, 229-pound Niklos. “And my family is obviously very excited. All the other [NFL] teams I’ve played for have been at least a nine-hour drive to see me play.”
Niklos, 28, who is married and lives in St. Louis, said the Browns told him he will compete for the starting job.
“He’s a proven commodity,” his agent, Josh Wright, said. “He just had to show he was healthy, show some fresh film and have some fresh eyes look at him.”
The Browns have two other fullbacks on the roster: Lawrence Vickers, a second-year player with one career NFL start, and Charles Ali, an undrafted rookie free agent.
Niklos’ road to Cleveland was anything but conventional.
He started his college career as a walk-on at Ohio State, where he redshirted as a freshman. Even though he was in a major college program, Niklos wasn’t happy. Coaches wanted him to play safety; he wanted to be a receiver.
Niklos decided to transfer to Division I-AA Western Illinois, where coaches allowed him to play tight end. Again, it wasn’t what he wanted, but the switch worked.
He averaged 15.4 yards per catch and was twice named a Division I-AA All-American, catching the attention of NFL scouts.
In 2002, Niklos signed as an undrafted rookie free agent with the Seattle Seahawks, who released him about four months later.
He caught a break the next year with St. Louis, when then-Rams coach Mike Martz named him the starting fullback.
But Niklos suffered a concussion in camp and was released. He then tumbled out of the NFL to the Arena Football League, signing with the Chicago Rush.
“Arena has some great athletes, but it really doesn’t cross over to NFL football,” Niklos said. “It’s kind of like comparing rugby to football.”
More signings and releases followed. In 2005, the Oakland Raiders allocated him to NFL Europa.
He found a niche in Frankfurt, where he was a member of the Galaxy team that won the 2006 World Bowl and lost a chance to repeat by losing to Hamburg in the championship June 23.
Now that there’s no developmental league, this could be Niklos’ last chance to make it in the NFL.
“We’re awfully proud of J.R., the way he’s persevered,” said Don Patterson, Niklos’ coach at Western Illinois.