I love smash-mouth football as much as Jon Gruden does. But, times are changing. Power running, specifically with a fullback, is becoming, if not already, rather antiquated. Yet, Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has displayed an affinity for the archaic position.
The Packers drafted Aaron Ripkowski to be the heir apparent to former Packer and fan favorite, John Kuhn. Just as McCarthy has, fans have gained an affinity for the fullback position. On any given Sunday, you could catch Packers fans shamelessly crooning “Kuuuhn” to the masses at the slightest opportunity. Ripkowski’s tenure in Green Bay has been no different. In lieu of Kuhn, the former Sooner has been aptly dubbed “Rip.” However, fan’s days of bellowing “Ripppp” from the grandstands may soon be coming to a close.
In an ever-changing NFL, the Packers have been swimming against the current. They, McCarthy and Co., have elected to keep fullbacks on the roster year after year. There are even seasons where the team has kept multiple. While keeping a fullback on the roster is not rare, it is not the norm. But, keeping two? Now, that’s rare. And even in our case, for McCarthy to keep two, was rare. However, it was done and just speaks to McCarthy’s fondness of the value that a fullback provides to a team. To begin discussing this, let’s first establish what exactly that value is.
Fullbacks are primarily used as lead blockers for the primary runner. Occasionally, and if I may add, enthusiastically, a fullback will get the opportunity to run the ball or even catch a pass out of the backfield usually in some attempt at misdirection or simply keeping the defense unbalanced. Now, as you can probably imagine, this type of player is best suited for an offense that commonly runs power plays. Power plays, by their simplest definition, are runs that involve a lead blocker of some sort and a runner who follows behind them. But, how often do the Packers even use a fullback?
The Packers were in the middle of the pack when it came to the utilization of two or more running backs. For intents and purposes of personnel grouping, fullbacks are considered running backs. According to sharpfootballstats.com, the Packers ran more than one running back onto the field about 15 percent of the time. That is good for 15th most in the NFL. For a coach who supposedly values the fullback so highly, I would both expect and like to see that utilization be a little higher. But, this also speaks to the turning of the tide in the NFL regarding the shift from power running to primarily passing the ball.
2018 could finally be the year where a fullback is not carried onto the 53-man roster. In Ripkowksi’s defense, he has provided value as a pass protector and an emergency de-facto running back in the past. However, with Green Bay being three deep at the running back position and the development of Jamaal Williams as a pass protector, Rip’s role has become even more diminished.
Now, just because the team doesn’t bring a fullback onto the roster, that doesn’t mean they have to abandon a power running game that uses a fullback. They already have a premier run blocker on the roster. Marcedes Lewis is arguably the best run blocking tight end in the NFL. I am not calling fullback and tight-end the same position. However, in a pinch, Lewis could easily fulfill the duties that would be requested of a fullback.
Another option would be veteran tight-end Lance Kendricks. Kendricks’ role in this offense already is as an H-Back, commonly consisting of being used as a blocker for the running game. Kendricks is not the same caliber of blocker as Lewis, but certainly is sufficient enough to warrant some snaps in a blocking role.
The additional benefit of using either Lewis or Kendricks in the role of a fullback is the dynamic ability that they could both bring to the position. Both are better pass catchers and better athletes than Ripkowski ever will be. This could allow Green Bay to get even more weapons on the field and create even more mismatches for Aaron Rodgers to exploit.
To not carry any fullbacks onto the roster would open up roster spots for either an additional EDGE defender, running back, wide receiver, or even another tight end. There are a number of talented players vying for playing time and competing for roster spots at those positions and even a couple of others. There is one problem that I don’t have an immediate solution for should the Packers not carry a fullback into 2018.
Ripkowski has been a significant contributor on special teams since his rookie season in 2015. That role is one where the player who took his roster spot would need to step up. But, if that is the only thing keeping Ripkowski on the roster, then cutting him is much easier to swallow.
The odds are not in favor of there being no fullbacks on this roster when September 1st arrives. However, as I have laid out above, there is good reason to believe that the Packers could easily survive, and possibly even thrive, without a fullback in 2018.