One of the little quirks that set the Packers apart from any other team in the league at the moment is the Packers’ extensive use of fullbacks. Where else but Green Bay can a fullback have the fans screaming his name every time he gets on the field? Last year, the Packers turned some confused heads by keeping three fullbacks on the roster when some teams only keep one, that’s something straight from the Vince Lombardi and Jim Taylor era.
The Packers use the fullback position as something of a jack-of-all-trades player; for instance, John Kuhn alone played the role of blocking fullback, wing-T fullback, short yardage back, halfback, blitz pickup 3rd down back, personal protector on punts, kickoff jammer and to add to that he was a threat on the red zone as a receiver.
Unfortunately, in the Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers era, this plan backfired a little. In essence, the 3rd fullback stole a roster slot from the halfbacks, and when starter Ryan Grant went on IR after the season opener, the Packers were left scrambling for depth behind Brandon Jackson. The Packers managed to hide the issue with a late surge from James Starks and consistent short yardage from fullback turned folk hero John Kuhn. But the problem still remained, the Packers running game was never the same.
But lessoned learned, and probably in a way that many might not have considered; in the 2011 NFL draft, the Packers selected tight end DJ Williams from Arkansas in the 5th round and Ryan Taylor from UNC in the 7th round.
DJ Williams is an interesting prospect because other than the fact that he lacks the prototypical height and size of an elite tight end, he has the skills to be very successful in the NFL and save for his height probably would have been drafted considerably higher. The winner of the Mackey Award and Disney Spirit Award in 2010 left the collegiate ranks as the leader in catches and receiving yards for tight ends and translates best in the NFL as a “move” tight end or H-back in a west coast offense.
Ryan Taylor, while not as accomplished a receiver as Williams is also a H-back; he set a single-season record at UNC for a tight end with 36 receptions and is also known for his special teams prowess as a former linebacker and special teams captain while at UNC.
So what does this have to do with the Packers fullbacks? Simply put DJ Williams and Ryan Taylor are the new John Kuhn’s for the Packers.
With the evolution of the NFL to be a passing first league, having players who can catch the ball is now of the utter most importance. Before, running backs could often get away with having suspect hands since they were almost never thrown at. But now running backs are expected to be able to run the majority of short and sometimes even intermediate routes.
When you take a look at the Packers fullbacks, really the only player that the coaches seem to trust with catching the ball is John Kuhn. And his catching ability is what lead to more time on the field than the rest of the fullbacks, which lead to more rushing attempts (if for no other reason than to hide his role on the offense), which lead to the Packers discovering he was a pretty good short yardage back, which then lead to Kuhn becoming a folk hero for Packers fans and a staple on the offense.
On the other side, one of the biggest knocks on fellow fullback Quinn Johnson was his ability to catch the ball. Johnson was drafted as an old school lead blocker and it quickly became apparent that lead blocking isn’t really that important in the modern game. Attempts to throw him the ball usually ended poorly and to date Johnson has caught 5 balls for 34 yards, not exactly a pass catching threat. Without the ability to catch the ball, defenses were able to key in on Johnson; anytime he was in the game it was likely that the Packers were going to try to run the ball.
This is where Williams in particular come into play. Williams is a prototypical H-back, which is a hybrid fullback/tight end position and as such expect to see Williams do many the same things as Kuhn. Expect to see Williams play extensively on special teams and be a third down blocker (either inline or as a third down back, as tight ends with the Packers often do). But what Williams brings that Kuhn doesn’t is his ability to run the complete short and intermediate route tree and catch the ball. While Kuhn might have had the best hands among the fullbacks, that pales in comparison to a legitimate tight end like Williams.In terms of the roster, it’s highly unlikely that the Packers will retain 3 fullbacks on the roster; 3rd round selection Alex Green is a near lock to make the 53 man roster solely based on his draft status and its highly likely that a fullback (most likely Quinn Johnson) is going to be cut to make room for Green. But the Packers also ave drafted two tight ends but only opened one spot (Donald Lee). As Ryan Taylor was drafted mainly for special teams its also conceivable that Korey Hall will not be resigned to make room for Taylor.
While it’s unlikely that DJ Williams or Ryan Taylor will ever entirely replace John Kuhn (especially the folk hero part), Williams and Taylor do represent the evolution of the fullback position to a more “H-back” position for the Packers.