Finding the Fit: Fullback
I’d make the case that Mughelli has assumed the title as best lead blocker in the league, a mantle that was vacated by Lorenzo Neal since he left San Diego two years ago. So really there isn’t any room for improvement in that regard at this position.
As I explained in the running back assessment, I think going forward this position is going to become less and less significant, as well as morph from wanting a blocker-first to a more versatile offensive weapon.
Mughelli is more versatile than he’s given credit for, showing he’s a capable runner and receiver on the rare opportunities he gets there. But the Falcons pay him to block and he earns every bit of that paycheck. But again, moving forward as confidence of Matt Ryan and the coaches’ confidence in him grows, the blocking back is going to be left by the wayside. I don’t think we’ll ever see an offense like the Colts where the fullback doesn’t exist with Smitty being the coach. But I do think the Leonard Weaver-model of fullback will be more of an asset than the Lorenzo Neal-type.
But I think we might already have that player on our roster. His name is Jason Snelling. It’s one of the reasons why I’m not super high on Snelling’s future at running back because I believe that as this offense grows and develops, Snelling’s future is much brighter as a fullback. He’s a good runner and receiver, and his blocking is improving. It’s not quite where it needs to be, but he’s not a liability there from what I can tell.
So between Ovie’s impact short-term and Snelling’s impact long-term, there really isn’t a lot of need at fullback. But for the sake of due diligence, I’ll look at some prospects out there that could potentially challenge/usurp Snelling.
1. Versatility – This is the all-incorporating aspect that is probably too broad, but refers to guys that were fairly dynamic weapons in college. If they were featured in college, then they aren’t likely to do be so in the pros.
2. Receiving Ability – A fullback that can be a weapon in the passing game out of the backfield is going to be a better weapon for Ryan to use, particularly on dump-off passes. One could argue that if the Falcons had a better receiver out of hte backfield, they would have been the first team to topple the Saints this past year. So it’s not only hands, but the ability to run after the catch.
3. Blocking – It’s not going completely by the wayside. The Falcons are likely still going to rely on having a lead blocker in short-yardage and goalline situations. The good thing is that a guy will be given time to develop here, so he doesn’t have to be great right away. But he should at least possess some affinity for this aspect of the game.
4. Rushing Ability – Ideally this player could also be an asset in the ground game, particularly in short-yardage situations. It’s not necessary and won’t make or break a prospect in terms of fit, but is worth mentioning since it’s a nice bonus.
I’m going to automatically eliminate guys that weren’t productive receivers in college. While it doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable receivers, it does probably mean that they aren’t the caliber of receiver that could be considered a future asset. So pretty much if a guy didn’t have double digit receptions in a season at any point during his college career, he’s not for us.
And I’m going to eliminate guys that weren’t significant options as runners as well unless they were very productive receivers. As I said above, it’s a bonus, but it’s a good indicator of a guys versatility if his college team considered him an option as a runner as well.
The best choice is proabbly the player that is the consensus top fullback in the draft: Virginia’s Rashawn Jackson. He’s not the most physical blocker, but is sound. He was a productive receiver (39 catches in the past two season) and used as a runner (96 carries last year). Jackson’s major strength is playing often as a single back in UVA’s spread attack, so he is used to a role comparable to that of what Snelling performed this past year.
BYU’s Manase Tonga is a good power blocker that is a physical runner and capable receiver. He lacks the upside to be a featured asset, but definitely is versatile and capable.
A player that is worth mentioning here because he doesn’t really fit anywhere else is Pitt’s Dorin Dickerson. Dickerson is less a fullback, and more a tweener between wide receiver and tight end. Dickerson will never be a great lead blocker or rusher in the NFL, but his ability as a receiver would give the Falcons a very unique weapon at the position. He was a running back in high school and arrived at Pitt dubbed an “athlete” and also played defense and returned kicks for them. So he definitely gets a check in the versatility category.
The Final Verdict
Jackson is essentially a Snelling clone and would make the best option if the Falcons wanted to bring in some competition.
But I think this is an instance where bringing a player like Snelling would be a bad move. There is a zero-sum gain here. Only one of them would stick. Instead, a player like Dickerson that brings a different skillset is probably best.
In an attempt a full disclosure, I must admit I am a Pitt alum, so thus there might be some pro-Pitt bias with Dickerson. But I do think he is a potentially unique player. I also can’t help but remember that when Mughelli was first hurt early in the year, the Falcons did use Brian FInneran a bit in an H-back role to pick up the slack. And I think it’s easy to imagine Dickerson in a very similar role. He won’t be a better runner or blocker than Snelling, but definitely could be an asset in the passing game, because he’s too fast for linebackers, too big for defensive backs, and can line up anywhere on the field creating matchup issues. He can be a poor man’s Dallas Clark.
Dickerson is a tweener, but I think it actually helps his stock for an imaginative coach. Jackson is probably going to be one of the first fullbacks off the board in the fourth or fifth round. Dickerson’s stock could be across the board ranging anywhere from a fourth rounder to seventh rounder depending on a coach’s imagination.