The talk about the Dallas Cowboys’ offense has covered many topics. Will Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott return to the high levels of play they showed in their rookie season? Does the addition of Connor Williams mean the offensive line will once again be among the elite in the league? Can the team find the answers they need at wide receiver? How will the tight end situation shake out? Can Scott Linehan incorporate do-everything wide receiver/running back Tavon Austin successfully into his scheme?
That covers everything - almost. As has become the norm in the NFL, the fullback position is overlooked. The Cowboys are a team that still employs one, and the only FB on the roster according to DallasCowboys.com is Jamize Olawale, acquired in a trade with the Oakland Raiders. Even in Dallas, the fullback has a limited role, primarily as a lead blocker. But with the expected emphasis on making the offense less predictable this season, that may change. Because Olawale is not your normal fullback.
Earlier this month, our Connor Livesey took a detailed look at Olawale’s play with the Raiders, and came away impressed.
The first thing you notice when turning on the tape of Jamize Olawale is how many different things he did for the Oakland offense. Olawale would line up at fullback, running back, receiver, and even tight end at times for the Raiders. In each of those roles, Olawale would do a little bit of everything, whether it was catching the ball, running the ball, or blocking.
While stats scouting is not a reliable way to evaluate a player, combining the video analysis Connor did with his numbers in Oakland paints an intriguing picture. While they did not hand him the ball much, he was surprisingly effective as a runner in 2015 and 2017, averaging 4.6 and 4.8 yards per attempt, respectively. Those are big numbers for a fullback. And he showed real breakaway talent as a receiver in 2016, averaging an impressive 18.9 yards a catch (a number that was admittedly skewed by the 75-yard touchdown reception he had that season). It also should be noted that the sample sizes were pretty small in all cases, as the Raiders did not employ him extensively as a runner or receiver.
When the Cowboys first acquired Olawale, I noted how he could be an unexpected part of the new plan for the offense. Now, with training camp just a few days away, it seems a good time to revisit that. Especially because of something else the team did.
One thing that was not known at the time Dallas completed the trade for Olawale was that they would also execute a trade during the draft to get Tavon Austin from the Los Angeles Rams. Austin has been described as a “web” back, who can line up in the backfield, the slot, or out wide, and who can run jet sweeps as well as a pass route. That sounds rather like what Connor said about Olawale. He, like Austin, can fill multiple roles, and his presence in the lineup does not necessarily tip that he is going to lead block or pass protect. Olawale could be used much the same way - except that instead of being a speedy and elusive 5-8, 179-pounder like Austin, he is a 6-1, 240-pound load that can still move with alacrity. Imagine being a corner tasked with defending the jet sweep, only instead of Austin coming at you, it could be Olawale with a full head of steam and violence in his eyes.
Business decision time, anyone?
It all depends on just how creative and out-of-the box Linehan is willing to get, but in the past he has shown he can do just that, as he did with Reggie Bush as the offensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions. If he is willing to try and maximize Olawale’s talents, there are some fascinating ideas.
- The team could put what looks to be a run set on the field with a 21 personnel grouping, with either Austin or Elliott as the halfback - then motion both backs out wide, forcing the defense to shift from run to pass defense, possibly with the wrong personnel on the field.
- Olawale could shift out to the slot or wide, leaving a single back. This could be especially effective on run-pass options, where Olawale could go into the pattern or lead block for the run. The latter might again put him against a much lighter defensive back.
- He could also be used as a single back. He certainly has demonstrated that he has the running skills, and it is just one more way to try and get the defense off balance. That may also be a consideration when the team is structuring the 53-man roster, because Olawale might be seen as part of the halfback depth as well, freeing up a roster spot elsewhere. His ability to line up at tight end also may play a part there.
- How about a double screen, with Olawale going toward one sideline and Elliott/Austin the other? Who will Dak throw it to? Again, the defense is going to be stressed trying to cover all the options.
These are just ideas off the top of my head, and in no way a prediction of what Linehan will actually try. But Olawale makes them at least possible. And Linehan was willing to occasionally call Keith Smith’s number in the passing game. Olawale is, by all indications, a much more capable receiving threat than Smith. Put him in the pattern a few times a game, give him a couple of handoffs, and he becomes a credible threat. Again, it is all about getting the defense in the wrong position or keyed on the wrong player. Olawale makes that easier.
Although preseason games tend to have vanilla game plans, it will be interesting to see if Linehan tries a few wrinkles with his fullback. If nothing more, it would put those ideas in the heads of opposing defensive coordinators. And since Olawale is the only fullback currently listed on the roster, those experiments could come at any time in a preseason game - which could lead to some big plays and a little more entertainment than we normally see. And it is also something to watch for during training camp. If they are practicing plays that put the ball in Olawale’s hands, we are much more likely to see those in the regular season.
There has been a lot of talk about how Austin is an X-factor type player, but Olawale can be another. A hidden X, if you will. While he is not going to be a major factor in games, he could provide a handful of plays during the season. That would make getting him a good move by the Cowboys.