Training Camp at St. John Fisher College is just around the corner for the Buffalo Bills and there are several relatively big questions surrounding the team and how the final 53-man roster will be constructed. One of those issues is in relation to a position that’s often an afterthought—the fullback.
Last year, the Bills made Jerome Felton the second-highest paid fullback in the National Football League with a four-year, $9.2 million deal with $3.6 million in guaranteed money. Felton, who’s 30 years old, is scheduled to count $2.3 million against Buffalo’s 2016 salary cap, $2.5 million in 2017 and $2.65 million in 2018.
Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman’s smash-mouth, old school power run game is one of the few in the league that utilizes fullbacks extensively. In 2015, Felton played 200 offensive snaps as a run blocker, the third-most in the NFL, and his 91 snaps in the passing game ranked seventh-most.
The fullback position isn’t a flashy one, but as New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick explains, a few teams are going back to it in order to combat the growing popularity of undersized, hybrid defenders.
“A few years ago you saw a lot of empty formations with no backs. Part of that was to take the bigger, slower players and spread them out and put them in space. I think as defenses have gone to linebackers that run better, that have more athletic ability, it’s a little harder to spread them out, but maybe you can get a better matchup with a fullback, or two tight ends in there.
“Some of [the smaller linebackers] have trouble defending double-team blocks, fullback-type plays. I think that’s a little bit of an issue for every defense: How much do you want to have an in-the-box type of defense, and how much do you need to be able to defend space?”
Felton, who made the 2012 Pro Bowl roster and was named second-team All-Pro the same year, didn’t have as big of an impact as many believed he would. In the two seasons prior to joining the Bills’ coaching staff, Greg Roman got 49ers fullback Bruce Miller involved in the offense pretty regularly, as he saw 60 targets in the passing game, where he recorded 43 receptions for 432 yards and two scores and added another 22 yards on 13 carries. Last season, the 6’0” 254 pound Jerome Felton played 15+ snaps in just six games, gaining two yards on his only rushing attempt and 12 yards on his lone reception.
As a lead blocker, Felton wasn’t much of a difference maker, even though the Bills’ rushing attack was among the league’s best. According to ESPN.com’s splits, the Bills averaged just 3.4 yards-per-carry when running from the “I” formation. Running backs gained 1,358 yards on 258 carries (5.2 yards-per-carry) and scored 12 touchdowns from shotgun formations as opposed to 401 yards on 101 carries (3.6 yards-per-carry) and one touchdown from formations with the quarterback under center.
Role of the Fullback in Greg Roman’s Offense
Roman’s offense asks a lot out of the fullback, as the image below shows Felton lining up in 12 different spots over the course of just three games from 2015.
We know that Greg Roman wants to not only use a fullback, but utilize the position creatively in both the run and pass game, which is why the signing of undrafted free agent Glenn Gronkowski is so interesting.
Felton moved around the offensive formation a lot and was constantly in motion before the snap. While most fullbacks now are used primarily on lead blocks in short yardage situations, Felton was tasked with blocking from multiple angles, on “bluff” blocks, “slice” blocks or “arc” blocks that require athleticism, intelligence and anticipation.
Here, Felton is executing an “arc” block on a sweep from a shotgun formation. He picks up the linebacker in space and drives him off the ball, clearing a lane for LeSean McCoy.
Here, he attempts the same block on a play to the right but doesn’t take a good angle and finds himself in bad position. The linebacker easily knocks him down and makes a play on the ball.
On lead blocks, Felton struggled to consistently move defenders off the ball, often falling off his man or getting in the way of the ball-carrier.
Glenn Gronkowski Potential Fit
Jerome Felton and Bruce Miller are very similar from a physical and athletic standpoint, as the site MockDraftable shows.
Glenn Gronkowski is a bit smaller than the two fullbacks Roman has worked with, standing 6’2” and 239 pounds, but brings more athleticism and versatility. Felton has a strong, compact frame, but he’s not going to be a threat in the passing game and he doesn’t consistently get to his landmarks when blocking in space.
Gronkowski was used in a variety of roles during his career at Kansas State, despite seeing just 39 touches. He has experience lining up in the backfield as a traditional fullback, attached to the line of scrimmage as a tight end, flexed off as a wing or split as an H-Back, so he has a basic understanding of some of the concepts he’d be asked to perform within Buffalo’s offense.
He had various blocking responsibilities, serving as a lead blocker on inside runs, sealing out defensive ends or force defenders on outside runs and even stayed home in pass protection on occasion.
Gronkowski was a playmaker when he did get involved in the offense, gaining 369 yards and scoring five touchdowns on 15 receptions, while adding 55 yards and a score on 14 rushing attempts. While he only caught 15 passes in his collegiate career, Glenn Gronkowski showed smooth footwork and running ability with the speed and fluidity to run a variety of routes. He’s got got footwork and gets in and out of breaks quickly, as you can see in the following play in which he runs a quick out route from the H-Back position to score a touchdown.
Of Glenn Gronkowski’s 15 receptions, six of them gained 25 or more yards, so even though he has a small sample size to evaluate, the production is there and his athletic ability is clear when you watch him on the field.
As a ball-carrier, Gronkowski shows good burst and acceleration to go along with patience and vision that allows him to set up blocks and provide value in short-yardage situations.
Value of Glenn Gronkowski vs Jerome Felton
Greg Roman is an innovative offensive mind that could maximize the athletic ability and talent of a player like Glenn Gronkowski. It’s clear that the Bills want the H-Back as a part of the offense, as we saw players like Marquies Gray see significant snaps last season while many others have come and gone. Chris Gragg and Nick O’Leary are underwhelming and aren’t as well-rounded talents as Gronkowski. If Gronkowski has a strong training camp, he could theoretically replace two roster spots due to his versatility.
By releasing Felton with a Post June-1st designation, Buffalo would save $1.65 million against the salary cap this year and carry just $650k in dead money. The move would save $5.4 million in actual cash over the next three seasons, as he’s already been paid $3.8 million of his $9.2 million deal. Releasing Gragg, who’s entering the final year of his contract would save the team $675k against the 2016 salary cap while carrying only $14k in dead money.
Glenn Gronkowski is a talented athlete with a skill set that Greg Roman has proven capable of utilizing. Jerome Felton is already 30-years old and his salary is far higher than his level of play warranted. The Bills need as much wiggle room as possible under the cap and developing Glenn Gronkowski could be the first step in doing just that.