The New York Jets finally brought the fullback position back into their offense in 2017, albeit in a very limited role. Who will come out on top in one of the most underrated position battles of training camp as the team pushes towards the 2018 season?
While all eyes will be fixated on the intense quarterback competition for the New York Jets come training camp, there are numerous other position battles that will be equally as captivating. Perhaps the most underrated of all comes in the form of another position aligned in the offensive backfield: the fullback.
After a multiple year hiatus, the fullback position finally returned to the Jets offense in 2017 with the conversion of former defensive lineman Lawrence Thomas to the unheralded position. This came after the team opted to release both of their potential options at the position, Julian Howsare, and Anthony Firkser, shortly after the conclusion of the preseason. Although Howsare initially made the 53-man roster, he was waived by the team before playing in a regular season game.
One could argue that the fact that the team resorted to converting a player’s position just to fill the fullback job isn’t necessarily the bode of confidence in the position that it may seem. However, it remains true that the team did, in fact, use one on the roster last year which is certainly a promising sign for the future of the position.
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Thomas returns to the team this year and will look to secure the position that finally allowed him to become a regular contributor but he will face steep competition in undrafted free agent Dimitri Flowers.
Flowers was seen as one of the premier fullback options in the 2018 NFL Draft class, which is like saying he was the most desirable MP3 player at your local RadioShack. It’s safe to say that the position isn’t as coveted as it once was.
That being said, Flowers represents the new breed of fullbacks. In many ways, he is a microcosm of the current landscape of the NFL. He excels in a plethora of different areas due to his athletic prowess and positional flexibility. That’s certainly a far cry from the fullbacks of yesteryear who were simply used as mauling run blockers and players who would only touch the football on 3rd-and-inches.
The game has evolved and so too has the fullback position with players like Patrick DiMarco and Kyle Juszczyk remaining integral parts of their team’s offenses. With the right offensive game planning, Flowers could be a similar type of player and become a luxury to a Jets offense still searching for its identity.
The Oklahoma product was a key chess piece for head coach Lincoln Riley during his time as a Sooner and his involvement in the offense helped make the team the third-highest scoring school in the nation in 2017.
Riley utilized elements of a smashmouth running game and an air raid passing attack to not only give his team an advantage but in turn, his players. Flowers was able to develop his run blocking with the up-tempo rushing attack that Riley deployed as he was oftentimes asked to pull and use his athleticism to get in place. The smashmouth style simply trained him to finish his blocks.
The air raid approach allowed Flowers to be used in a more traditional tight end role which saw him improve his ability as a pass catcher, something that scouts raved about in the pre-draft scouting process. The San Antonio native was even asked to be a feature back for a 2016 game against conference foe Iowa State. As could be expected, Flowers did not disappoint finishing the day with 115 yards on 22 carries solidifying his status as a do-it-all type of player for Oklahoma.
While Flowers has the potential to be a very valuable piece in the Jets offense, he is not yet the finished product that some have made him out to be. Although he certainly offers plenty of positional flexibility and has shown that he could be a reliable pass catcher, his blocking isn’t at the level that it should be as of now.
This is where Thomas has a competitive advantage.
Thomas is significantly larger than Flowers, weighing in at almost 40 pounds more than the rookie free agent. This allows him to create more holes for the run game as his large frame gives him a better chance of getting in the way of defenders.
Now, Thomas is certainly not the most polished blocker either. However, he now has a year of experience under his belt and is no longer attempting to learn the position as he goes. Before last season, Thomas’ only experience as a fullback came during his freshman season at Michigan State.
Being the incumbent starter and given his familiarity with the team, Thomas probably has a much better chance of winning the starting job than most would anticipate. That being said, the final decision will ultimately come down to what direction the Jets want to take with their offense going into 2018. If the team plans to incorporate a fullback into their offense and even scheme some plays around the position, then Flowers might be their guy.
If they instead opt to go with a more traditional approach to the position and keep the position as a limited piece of the puzzle used sparingly in blocking situations, then Thomas seems like the best fit. There’s even always the possibility that the team decides to save a roster spot and not carry a fullback at all which is anything but an anomaly in today’s NFL.
In actuality, this could be one of the likeliest scenarios of them all. That being said, the Jets would still be wise to keep either Flowers or Thomas on the roster as a fullback could still prove to be valuable to NFL offenses, even in 2018.