The Packers New Evolutionary Chart: From John Kuhn to D.J. Williams

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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.

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Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.

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  • FireMMNow

    It is strange that the H-back is not used more in the NFL today. DJ Williams is a perfect fit for this offense. He was my favorite pick of the entire draft. He will make our offense even more dynamic. The lockout will hamper him some, but he is extremely intelligent. The thing that excites me most about Williams is that he can line up as a FB, but he really understands route running and the concepts of the passing game. The NFL today has so many option routes and he will pick them up quickly.

    • Thomas Hobbes

      My feeling is that a #3-4 wide receiver is still probably more sought after than a #1 H-back. From a scheme standpoint, #3-4 wide receiver traditionally goes across a #3-4 cornerback, who typically isn’t all that good. a H-back, however is likely to be going up with the same types of players that TEs typically go against, namely MLB/ILBs and safeties, all of which are probably starters. I do think however that this is a trend that will likely continue, an offense that can legitimately throw the ball to all skill position players is likely to be more dangerous than a team that can’t

      • Chad Toporski

        The thing is when you have guys like Finley and Quarless who can create some match-up problems. I see the abundance of TE’s as a potential for flexibility when you can go run or pass. First and second downs, 3-and-1’s, goal-to-go, etc.

        That’s why it will still be important that the TE’s can both block and catch.

  • Tarynfor 12

    I guess Kuhn,Hall and Havner should willingly package themselves as trade bait for TT.

    Each has done the job asked of them but this team will need ladder climbers and I feel they are/were only step stools in an improbable yet successful season(s.
    As much as Kuhn is worshipped now,Havner was in 09′ and Hall being on what most fret about,STs,have not gotten it done to a standard desired.

    • Thomas Hobbes

      Well keep in mind Kuhn essentially won the first Lions game by running out the 4th quarter. In my opinion, Kuhn is a pretty good situational back and even if Williams and Taylor make the team, its highly unlikely with the lockout that either of them (or any rookie across the league) is going to make significant contributions, at least in the beginning of the season.

      Also props for being the only person to come up with a legitimate rebuttal to my last post, I applaud you for coming up with something sensible.

  • aaronqb

    Finley will be taking Lee’s spot on the 53-man. I’m not as sold on Kuhn as most. He is only an adequate blocker, is slow as molasses (he was outrun by the Patriot guard on the kickoff return), and fumbled during the playoffs. I would put him along with Johnson, Crabtree, Swain, and Taylor as on the fence.

    The Packers could choose to go with 4 RBs/4 WRs and 5 TEs. I think it will come down to special teams for the guys on the fence.

    • Thomas Hobbes

      I guess just to nitpick, Finley is a lock to make the roster and Lee wasn’t released to make room for him. Also the Packers have always traditionally kept 5 wide receivers on the roster as the 1st 4 usually see playing time each game. If they decide to treat Finley as a receiver I can see this happening though.

      • Chad Toporski

        I don’t really think there’s any way the Packers can keep only 4 WR’s on the roster. If nothing else, they’ll need a security blanket if something happens to one of them, and I don’t think they’ll want to just elevate a practice squad player.

  • numby

    I agree with this article and am not sold on our fullbacks. When it came to blocking short yardage, we put in Raji anyways so why not make this an offensive position by the H-back.

    I am not sold on Kuhn as a runner. Struggled on anything other than a straight ahead run.

    • Thomas Hobbes

      I don’t think Raji saw much time as a lead blocker; I think his one and only attempt at it was in the NFC divisional round against the Falcons, and its pretty obvious what the Packers are going to do when Raji is on the field on offense (then again maybe he has good hands, he did catch that interception in the NFC Championship game).

      As for Kuhn, he might only be good running straight up the gut, but that’s basically what you want from a short yardage back, get positive yards and don’t dance around in the backfield.

      • Chad Toporski

        “…its pretty obvious what the Packers are going to do when Raji is on the field on offense…”

        That’s what the Bears thought when Rodgers ran the naked bootleg off of that formation. ;-)

  • FireMMNow

    kuhn should stay. He was the team’s best short yardage back and is just one of those guys that helps you win games. Hall and Johnson should be casualties. Kuhn will get atleast another year in a packer uniform. People chanted his name for a reason…he made a difference in a ton of games last year. He is not spectacular, but he is cheap, durable and versatile. That is three things that TT really likes.

    • Thomas Hobbes

      I don’t think there is much chance that Kuhn doesn’t come back, for one his value is probably highest with the Packers and all parties know it. Add to that if Brandon Jackson leaves and you have essentially two rookie running backs in the fold plus another who is coming off a serious injury. Kuhn may not be ripping off 10+ yard runs but just having him on the field gives the Packers a decent running threat.

      • Chad Toporski

        I agree.

        Kuhn is actually more cunning than people think. He’s made some good moves with some of his touches to pick up extra yardage. Plus, he’s a fighter. He won’t go down until he’s given everything to keep going.

  • Chris K

    I can agree on DJ Williams being in that H-Back role as well as Ryan Taylor.

    So what you’re saying is you see the WR/TE combination working out like this:
    TE-J.Finley, A.Quarless, T.Crabtree
    FB-J.Kuhn, DJ.Williams, R.Taylor (Last 2 double as TE along with T.Crabtree)
    With Q.Johnson taking a hike?

    Taking the RB spots would be R.Grant, J.Starks, & Alex Green.

    That leaves us with 1 TRUE FB, 3 Hybrid TE/FB guys, 2 TRUE TE’s(Finley/Quarless), and 3.5 RB’s (I’ll let Kuhn count as half).
    Thats 9 spots and meets what we had next year.

    • Thomas Hobbes

      Well officially the Packers can massage the roster however they want; they could convert Williams and Taylor to fullbacks (which might be a smart move since fullbacks typically don’t command the same asking price later on), and have them do the same thing they would be doing as a H-back.

      A more realistic look is probably trading one player for another. I see Johnson getting replaced by Green, Williams for Lee and Taylor for Hall.

  • Lucas

    Quinn Johnson never seemed to leave the rookie inconsistancy game. He was hot and cold ,even within the same series. If he can be a bruising blocker dependably, then he has a place in this offense. If he’s like his previous years, he’s gone.

    • Thomas Hobbes

      The question then becomes, really how important is lead blocking in today’s game? The Packers are one of the few teams to use the straight or offset I formation and even the Packers empty the backfield a ton since Rodgers has a fast release and mobile feet. Add to that his inconsistency and lack of value in the passing game and special teams and I think it will be hard for him to get back on the roster.

      • Chad Toporski

        From what I understand, Johnson is also less-than-stellar in the special teams category. The Packers (and most teams, really) have to be able to rely on those secondary guys to get it done on ST. It’s what gives them enough worth to make the roster.

      • Lucas

        Coach seems to like variety. Johnson’s place is being that blocker other teams don’t see often, giving GB a wrinkle. However, Coach likes creativity, and I don’t know how creative a FB in a ZB scheme should/can be. He has value in that he offers what few others can. I just don’t believe it’s more valuable than what other roster spots can offer, especially considering what you mentioned about special teams.

        • Thomas Hobbes

          From that standpoint, Johnson doesn’t offer much variety since his only good point is blocking, so basically when he’s in he’s usually blocking; he’s never run the ball once and he’s only caught the ball 5 times in his career.

  • PackersRS

    DJ Williams for Havner
    Ryan Taylor for Hall
    Alex Green for B Jackson/Johnson

    Kuhn will re-sign. We’ll keep Quarless, Finley, Crabtree and Williams as TEs. We’ll keep 6 backs, Grant, Starks, Green, Kuhn, Taylor/Johnson/Hall.

    There was the distinct possibility of no UDFA, Taylor, Guy, Elmore were picked to compete for roster spot, they don’t have a guaranteed spot.

    • Oppy

      off topic, but I’m surprised Elmore doesn’t get more respect.. Elmore is a huge reason why Brooks Reed got his numbers..

      Elmore is practically an Aaron Kempman clone in many respects.

    • Thomas Hobbes

      Havner never had a spot on the 2010 roster, he was signed after someone else got hurt and he’s probably on the outside looking in this year. Also, I’m pretty sure the opening day roster last year was 2 RB, 3 FB, and 3 TE, which makes 8 total among all of them. You’ve listed 10 (4 TE and 6 RB/FB/HB) so you’ve got to cut 2 spots from somewhere else. It’s not happening at expensive of WRs and its not coming from QBs (as they only had two) so that means you have to cut it from the offensive line, and cutting 2 offensive linemen is getting a bit on the dangerous side, especially considering there are 5 starting spots.

      • Chad Toporski

        The 2010 53-man roster began as: 2 QB, 2 RB, 3 FB, 4 TE, 5 WR, 10 OL, 6 DL, 8 LB, 6 CB, 4 S and 3 SP.

        The 4 TE were Finley, Quarless, Lee, and Crabtree. Grant and Jackson were the RB, and the FB were Kuhn, Hall, and Johnson.

        That would be a combined total of 9 players.

        • Chris K

          So not TOO much change:
          4 TE-Finley,Quarless,Crabtree,Taylor
          3 RB-Grant,Starks,Green
          2 FB-Kuhn,Williams
          Only changing from 2 running backs to 3 & 3 Fullbacks to 2.

          Whats interesting is if the rosters expand 2 or 3 spots!!! Wonder where those 2 extra spots will go? Maybe a 7th DL or very possibily a 9th LB?

          Kinda seeing 6 CB’s happen again with Wood, tramon, shields, bush(S too), House, and either Pat lee for the 6th spot or josh gordy…

          • PackersRS

            As Chad said, 9 spots, not 8. And I’m not dead set on 6 backs, thus why I listed Taylor/Johnson/Hall. In the end, there’s the possibility of only 1 of those getting a spot, though I listed 2 for ST reasons.

          • PackersRS

            And BTW, is it set on being a 53-man roster? Heard due to shortened preseason there could be an extender roster so fringe players have a better chance of making the roster…

            • Thomas Hobbes

              Looks like it could be a 54 man roster now, but from the wording of the proposal, it looks like most teams will elect to have a 3rd quarterback on the active roster, so really no difference for the Packers

  • Chris K

    Do you think that in the near future(potentially 2012) if Taylor/Williams turn out to be those great blockers that you see a guy like Crabtree gone b/c his pass-catching has not exactly been a highlight for him?!? Hmm… 2012-Finley???, Quarless, Wiliiams, Kuhn, Taylor OR Crabtree. That would equal your 5 for the TE & FB position…. A normal number or Maybe both Taylor & Crabs stick around if Finley does leave!

    Either way what a great situation to have!!!!!

    • Thomas Hobbes

      My feeling is that in this day and age, you need to be able to catch the ball, plain and simple. As much as fans seem to like Crabtree, he’s always going to have an uphill battle for that reason. If anything I would say that his spot is more in danger than even Quinn Johnson simply because the Packers invested a draft pick on Johnson. I will say that I think Crabtree has a better shot at keeping his spot than Johnson since he plays special teams and is a pretty decent inline blocker.