Where did fullback rank among your biggest offseason concerns for the Cowboys? I doubt it was anyone’s top five. What about your top ten? Was it somewhere between the sixth cornerback and backup punter?
Much forgotten in the modern NFL, the fullback position is one that most fans give little to no thought to. Though I imagine this is true for many in Cowboys Nation, I would also propose that Dallas fans are more likely to have concern for it than the average NFL follower. The reason for that is a beloved figure from our not-so-distant past.
Ask Cowboys fans from the 90s who their favorite player was and you’ll often hear one of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, or Michael Irvin. Some, though, will avoid the cliche answers and tell you that it was Daryl “Moose” Johnston. The lead blocker on Emmitt’s path to the NFL record for career rushing yards, Johnston was the blue collar hero on one of the flashiest teams in league history.
Six years ago, Emmitt tearfully reminded the world how important Moose was to him and to what he’d achieved in his Hall of Fame speech. Johnston also remains visible thanks to his commentary job with FOX Sports. He is both a reminder and a relic of what the fullback position once was.
For the last two years and part of 2013, Dallas has employed Tyler Clutts as their fullback. He has just one catch in each of the last two seasons. However, he’s also been involved in helping DeMarco Murray and Darren McFadden have league-leading rushing yardage.
Dallas will often utilize a second tight end instead of a fullback or go with single-back formations, making Clutts only a part-time member of the offense. He has never been particularly noteworthy in his play, other than a touchdown in the 2014 playoff loss to Green Bay. Clutts made a bad early impression with Cowboys fans by missing a block that led to a major injury to Tony Romo in 2013.
Last year Clutts was an unrestricted free agent and Dallas did not initially bring him back, instead signing free agents Jed Collins and Ray Agnew. They surprisingly cut Collins in mid-May and brought back Clutts, who eventually kept his job for all of 2015. Now they find themselves back to deciding between a return for Clutts or trying to find a better option.
Jason Garrett has always had a true fullback on his roster since becoming head coach, so I doubt they will abandon it completely. Dallas may elect to just bring Clutts back again and go for continuity. There is certainly benefit to him being able to read and predict the offensive linemen as much as there is for the running back behind him.
If they again look to free agency, Dallas could consider Will Johnson from the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is four years younger than Clutts and has been blocking for one of the NFL’s better rushing attacks the last few years. There are some older veteran options such as John Kuhn and Will Tukuafu, coming from the Packers and Seahawks respectively. Cory Harkey, who just finished blocking for Todd Gurley’s monster season in St. Louis, is also available.
If they do not fill the fullback spot then Dallas will likely ask James Hanna, who just re-signed with the team for three years, to handle the backfield blocking. They will be paying Hanna close to $3 million per year so finding more ways to get him on the field would make sense. Perhaps the idea of utilizing him as the fullback was why they were willing to offer that contract.
Again, this is far from the greatest issue pressing the Cowboys right now. They could leave it open all offseason and likely find a serviceable option sometime just before training camp or even in August.
Still, the old Moose lover in me is always more comfortable when there’s a solid guy leading the way for our running back. Maybe it’s an outdated philosophy, but we’ve never been as successful without it.