In any year, training camp is a time when the best laid plans often go awry. The big risk is injury in practice or preseason games. Suddenly a team has to shuffle things to figure out how to replace a player on the depth chart, and often sign someone new to back-fill. This year, there is a different threat, and that is players who opt out of the season over concerns about COVID. The Dallas Cowboys had not seen anyone who was likely to make a significant contribution take that route until Sunday, when fullback Jamize Olawale decided he was not participating this season.
Fortunately for the team, this does not exactly imperil the playbook. Olawale was only on the field for about 11% of the offensive plays last year, and provided more value as a special teams asset. The position has become increasingly irrelevant in the pass-happy NFL. However, a fullback was one roster position that the Cowboys insisted on having while Jason Garrett was head coach. There is evidence in Mike McCarthy’s history that he, too, will want to have one. It was generally believed that Olawale had a spot on the roster, and even hope that McCarthy and Kellen Moore could actually get some production from the position.
Now, that has been chucked out the window. The staff has to figure out if they are going to fill the position or not, and how if the answer is yes.
Suddenly, one of the UDFA signings looms large. Sewo Olonilua from TCU has been listed at the mothership as a fullback all along. He is certainly big enough at 6-3/240. He also drew more attention than most because of his background in college, which was not as a fullback but as a running back, with over 1,600 yards rushing in his four years, and an additional 383 yards as a receiver. That history led to speculation that McCarthy wanted to keep him to incorporate the fullback as more than just a lead blocker. There was even thought that he was a real challenger for Olawale’s spot on the roster. With his ability to carry the ball and average nearly five yards each time, he also could be a way to provide depth behind Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard while freeing another spot.
Now that may be more than just a training camp experiment. Assuming a fullback is in the plans, Olonilua is the obvious choice. The team could still look outside the organization, but there just aren’t many options out there. Olonilua just became the UDFA most likely to stick this year.
However, he is not the only way to address this. As our DannyPhantom pointed out to the BTB staff, the team could also utilize a tight end to fill the fullback or H back role if a lead blocker is needed, or if the team just wants to show one before motioning to a different alignment. That could favor free agent Blake Bell, or open up an opportunity for UDFA TE Sean McKeon. Both would bring some blocking skills to the equation while also being able to go out as a target for Dak Prescott.
With a greatly abbreviated camp and no preseason games, this is now something that is going to be interesting to watch. Hopefully the restrictions on coverage from the small pool of reporters allowed at camp practices will still allow us to get an idea of how things are developing. What we won’t have is a chance to see the team try some stuff in preseason games. The answer to all this will likely not come until the initial regular season roster is announced.
As mentioned, fullback is hardly a crucial position for the team. But this is just a hint of what might come if a much more significant player opts out, or if there are just a lot of them, as the New England Patriots are seeing. And there is also the issue of having a starter go into quarantine due to testing positive, as has happened with QB Matt Stafford of the Detroit Lions. That means having to practice without starters while hoping the infected individual is not out for longer with complications.
All NFL teams are holding their breath to see what happens. This is an issue that could become huge for anyone. It could drastically change the balance of power. The league and fans alike are hoping it won’t, but it is totally out of our control. The Cowboys happen to be in good shape to handle this particular situation. Another might be much more confounding.