It is the dead time of the year for most things NFL. But we can certainly use some distraction, especially Cowboys fans who live in or near Dallas. So here is one writer’s take on one of the questions facing the team as training camp in Oxnard creeps slowly closer: What should the Cowboys do about the fullback job?
This would seem to be one of the minor questions the team has to answer with all the problems facing it on defense. As John Owning of Today’s Pigskin remarked in his analysis of the position:
The fullback position in the NFL has gone the way of the VCR. Both used to serve an important purpose, but they have become largely extinct in today’s fast move-moving world (and game).
But, as we know, Jason Garrett has bucked the trend, keeping a fullback on the roster. It falls in line with the offensive philosophy the Cowboys prefer. A run-first approach is more likely to find a use for a fullback than the pass-centered attack that has become prevalent in the league. And even some teams that still feature a running game are going more with a read-option type approach that runs out of single-back formations and, in some cases, utilize the quarterback as a way to stress the defense.
The Cowboys are not going to use Tony Romo that way. They want to get the yards with the halfback, and there still are going to be plays that require a lead blocker. Currently, Dallas has three options (as Owning pointed out): Rod Smith, a former running back, Keith Smith, a converted linebacker, or just giving in to the way things are evolving and dropping the position altogether.
So which way will they go? Rod Smith offers additional utility. The Cowboys have seldom used the fullback as a weapon himself, but he has much better running ability than Tyler Clutts, the fullback of the past couple of years, and he is also presumably a capable pass receiver as well. Keith Smith, on the other hand, is more compact (three inches shorter than Rod, but almost exactly the same weight), and with his lack of offensive experience, would likely be much more a traditional fullback who almost exclusively blocks.
But the decision is likely to be based on two rookies, running back Darius Jackson and tight end (and former basketball player) Rico Gathers. The team is going to be hard pressed to find enough roster spots for all the needs it has elsewhere, and those two players have more utility than a fullback for the team. Jackson has a skill set that should allow him to step into the role of Lance Dunbar as the change of pace back. Dunbar is likely to start the season on PUP, opening a spot for Jackson. And the team is probably going to want to keep both Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris along with presumptive starter Ezekiel Elliott. With the heavy emphasis on the running game, they have to have depth at the position, and Jackson is also capable of filling the every down role if it is needed. With four backs, that would force the team to have to go short somewhere else to carry a fullback and the most likely place to do that is at tight end.
But the Cowboys also make heavy use of the TE position, including two tight end sets. Expect them to want to keep four tight ends, and with Gavin Escobar also still recovering from injury, Gathers is a very good candidate to get the fourth spot (behind Jason Witten, James Hanna, and Geoff Swaim).
More importantly, if both Jackson and Gathers develop well in camp, they become too valuable to risk by trying to get them onto the practice squad. The simply offer too much for the team to forego to keep a fullback, who is only going to see the field on a handful of plays, and whose role can be handled by the tight ends.
Obviously, there is a lot of projection involved in this. If either Jackson or, more likely, Gathers just fail to develop as much as hoped, the team could decide to keep a fullback. But I am betting on the two rookies to live up to their promise enough for the team to want to keep both of them. Admittedly, Gathers would seem like a long shot, but his retention would also be influenced by his long-term potential. And a little creativity and extra work by the coaching staff could bring him along enough to make him a usable player this season, despite the steep learning curve.
That is my prediction. It does fly in the face of recent history for Dallas, but I think this is the way for the team to go. Of course, I may be all wet. That is why this is a very premature forecast.
What do you think? Will Jason Garrett finally get over his infatuation with the fullback position? Sound off in the comments. And maybe I will be back with some more highly speculative projections as we count down the days to Oxnard.