Football is a constantly evolving game, and the NFL is a constantly evolving league. While the basics and fundamentals of the sport stay relatively the same throughout time, strategies and certain intricacies will always come and go.
As the game moves into the future it will leave behind certain philosophies, terminology, and even positions. The fullback position is one of the latest casualties of our ever-evolving game. While the Dallas Cowboys believe they have drafted their next Emmitt Smith in Ezekiel Elliott, their next Daryl Johnston may never exist.
Fullbacks used to serve a necessary and important purpose in an offense; a blocking back out of the backfield who could clear up the 2nd level of defenders to help your running back find open space. In this new pass-first league which puts an added focus on athleticism and versatility, the traditional fullback-type no longer has a place in most offenses. Even those teams which are more “run-first” are using zone read schemes and designed quarterback runs out of single back sets, which obviously lack a fullback.
In Dallas, however, head coach Jason Garrett has refused to let go. After employing fullback Tyler Clutts for the past few seasons, the Cowboys are now looking to replace him with some new blood.
While the current options seem to be either converted running back Rod Smith or former linebacker Keith Smith, I think it might be time for the Cowboys to stop trying to utilize a traditional blocking fullback at all. It’s time for versatility, it’s time for athleticism, and with the amount of quality running backs currently on the roster, it’s time to let go.
The Cowboys need all the tight ends they can get, which may leave no room for a traditional fullback.
We all know the Cowboys love to run out of two tight end sets, making each and every tight end on their roster valuable. Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar, James Hanna, and Geoff Swaim are all but guaranteed roster spots at this point because of the necessity for this offense to carry four tight ends.
Yes, I remember how putrid some of these players have looked during blocking situations, but with the team already needing to carry so many tight ends, the space for a fullback is limited.
Escobar will likely start the season on the physically unable to perform list however, making rookie tight end Rico Gathers even more important. If he is retained after Escobar returns, he will be the fifth tight end, taking up even more roster space.
Maybe Hanna and company can improve their blocking and work out of the backfield more comfortably. Maybe not. But I think it is at least worth a try considering the team may end up carrying five tight ends. Even if Gathers is on the practice squad.
They should not sacrifice a potential playmaker for a fullback.
Specifically, they should not feel handcuffed and forced to cut a running back that they see value in just because they feel the need to carry a fullback. You know that Elliott is going to be there, and I would strongly believe that Alfred Morris is going to be on the roster as well. That leaves Darren McFadden, Lance Dunbar, and sixth round rookie Darius Jackson fighting for the third running back spot.
McFadden has issues with scheme fit, but he has already shown some ability to make it work in this offense and behind that offensive line. Also a former number four overall pick, he may be able to bring some veteran leadership into the running back group and specifically with Ezekiel Elliott.
While he may start the season on the physically unable to perform list, Dunbar has shown the ability to make plays out of the backfield and in the pass game before. I would hate to lose Dunbar because the coaches decide they want to convert someone to a traditional fullback role.
But you can keep both McFadden and Dunbar and carry a fullback. That shouldn’t be a problem. My desire to eliminate the position comes from my expectations for Darius Jackson.
As I discussed in my film review of Jackson, he has big play ability every time he touches the ball. He is explosive, shifty, and so fast. He will be able to fill that Dunbar-type role for the Cowboys if needed, but with his size I think he may be able to do so much more.
If Rod Smith or Keith Smith prove to be good fullbacks, then by all means keep them.
I like Rod Smith a lot as a player, but I don’t know how effective a fullback he is going to be. At this point, all I can do it predict and project, and I honestly expect Jackson to impress during camp enough for the coaches to find it damn near impossible to let him go.
Regardless of what the final decision is, these next two months are going to decide a lot about how good the Cowboys can be in 2016.