ST. JOSEPH — When Chiefs fans last saw Steve Maneri, he was wearing a number in the 60s and weighing nearly 300 pounds. He was an offensive tackle trapped in a tight end’s body, and his future in football appeared dim.
So when Maneri shed about 40 pounds during the offseason (as well as that No. 68 Will Shields jersey) and transformed back into his natural tight end position, it was like seeing the “After” in one of those “Before and After” diet commercials.
Maneri was the surprise of the preseason opener when he caught three passes for a team-leading 69 yards in a 27-17 win over Arizona. And all three were downfield routes where he found open spaces for gains of 28, 14 and 27 yards.
“Those are three pretty good catches, I have to admit,” said coach Romeo Crennel. “There are a lot of people who would have said, ‘There’s no way he could have made those catches.’’’
On Maneri’s first catch, on a throw from Brady Quinn, he caught the ball at midfield and dragged a defender for another 13 yards. On the second catch, the 6-foot-6, now 270-pound Maneri made a double move on a linebacker and snatched a slightly overthrown pass from Quinn. And on the third, Maneri split two defenders and caught a 27-yarder from Ricky Stanzi in stride.
“I guess they don’t cover offensive tackles…,” Maneri deadpanned when asked how he got himself so open against the Cardinals.
Maneri was a tight end at Temple, where he started 25 games and caught 38 passes for 421 yards and nine touchdowns. But when he wasn’t selected in the 2010 draft, he got the bright idea of converting to offensive tackle.
“Being undrafted, I had some offers to play tight end and tackle,” he said, “and I chose to go tackle. I thought it would be a better opportunity for me to make an NFL roster.”
He entered the NFL as a rookie free agent with Houston in 2010, and to put on the pounds to play tackle, he ate. And ate.
He’d go to Applebee’s for the two-dinners-for-$20 promotion and eat both meals.
“It was definitely hard for me,” Maneri said. “I came out of high school at about 215 pounds … The biggest challenge was putting on weight and being strong enough to deal with 300, 300-plus pound guys every day. As a tight end in college, you’re blocking strong-side linebackers who were 220 pounds.”
Maneri was released by Houston and claimed by New England, where he spent most of 2010 on the Patriots’ practice squad and was waived a week before the 2011 regular season. The Chiefs claimed him on waivers, and he appeared in six games, starting the Dec. 24 game against Oakland in a three-tight end formation.
A month earlier, Maneri lined up as an eligible receiver against Pittsburgh and caught one pass. For one yard. That gave the Chiefs an idea. Last February, they called Maneri into the offices and told him they’d like to see him go back to playing tight end.
But to play tight end, Maneri would have to lose the weight he had worked so hard to gain. That turned out to be the simple part.
“It’s easy to lose weight,” Maneri said, a mantra that so many people would like to believe. “Just don’t eat that much. I’m naturally a thinner person, and we work out so much that it falls right off.”
Maneri, issued No. 87, was impressive during the Chiefs’ OTAs and minicamps, snaring almost everything thrown his way.
“Guys get moved around all the time,” said tight ends coach Bernie Parmalee. “It’s about attitude. If the coach asks you to do something, it’s a matter of can you do it or you can’t do it? He embraced everything …”
Having played the position made the transition easier than say switching to the defensive line or linebacker.
“The challenges have been reading coverages, getting open, and there’s a lot more running than there was last year,” Maneri said. “But it feels a lot better to run when you’re 270 as opposed to over 300 pounds.
“I’ve always had (good) hands. Getting open is a hard thing, but there were a couple of open spots in the zone (against Arizona), and the quarterbacks found me.”
Despite his performance in the preseason opener and a solid training camp, Maneri is no sure thing to crack the Chiefs’ final roster. Tony Moeaki, assuming he is recovered from knee surgery, and free agent Kevin Boss are firmly established, though they are better receiving tight ends than they are blockers. And veteran Jake O’Connell, while not the most sure-handed receiver, starts on some special teams.
“Let it be clear,” Maneri said after the Arizona game. “I’m here to block. I’m a blocking tight end, and that’s what I need to do. There were a couple of plays I wish I could take back there that I need to get better on. They call a route, I’m trying to run it, I’m trying to get open, I’m trying to make a catch. I know my strengths and weaknesses, and I’m working on them every day.
“I’m fighting to make the roster, providing whatever value I can, hopefully somewhere in the running game, and hopefully in the passing game, too.”
It might have been easy for Maneri to give up on himself when offensive tackle didn’t work out. So what’s kept him going?
“I’m in the NFL, living a dream right now being here,” he said. “Hopefully it lasts as long as possible.”