With the NFL’s continued growth into a pass-first league, the fullback position may not have become obsolete but certainly devalued. Just look at this season’s numbers: 131 backfield runners have carried the football at least once, but only 12 of them are listed as traditional fullbacks. Among this group is James Develin, who gained three yards on two rushing attempts before being placed on injured reserve in mid-September.
Develin’s job description, of course, did not list carrying or catching the football as his primary field of duties. Instead, he had to open up lanes for the halfbacks behind him — something he did at a very high level. The 31-year-old therefore played a big role within the New England Patriots’ offense, before he had to be placed on IR because of a neck injury. Luckily, the team had another fullback waiting in the wings to fill the void.
After being promoted from the practice squad to the active roster, Jakob Johnson did just that admirably. While not the same level of fullback as Develin, the undrafted rookie did see his fair share of action as a lead-blocker and special teamer. However, his first year in the NFL came to an end after just four games: the 24-year-old suffered a shoulder injury in Week 6 and was forced to join Develin on the season-ending reserve list shortly thereafter.
With two fullbacks now on IR, the Patriots had to get creative. They tried tight ends — Benjamin Watson, Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo and the since released Eric Tomlinson — and even used offensive lineman James Ferentz. However, the team ultimately settled on linebacker Elandon Roberts. After seeing four snaps in the backfield before New England’s Week 10 bye, Roberts played 11 at fullback over the two games since.
“Elandon’s got a very physical style of play,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick about the 25-year-old during a media conference call earlier this week. “He has a good skillset. He can run, he’s a very compact guy with good lower body strength and leverage and power, and I think we’ve all seen that on the defensive side of the ball and in the kicking game. We’ve lost a couple fullbacks here on our roster with James Develin and [Jakob Johnson], so we use Elandon some at fullback.”
Roberts may not enter the ranks of the NFL’s elite lead blockers anytime soon, but he has surely proven himself a serviceable player at the position. Belichick pointed this out during his conference call, when he mentioned one of his blocks against the Philadelphia Eagles and labeled it as “probably one of the best blocks we’ve had all year.” On Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, Roberts had another impressive play when he sealed the edge on the game-clinching 12-yard run by Sony Michel.
“He made a few good blocks there at the end,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels added. “He does everything you ask him to do — what a great teammate, that’s why he’s a captain. He’s a good player and he’s a great teammate. He’s unselfish and we’ve asked him to play a lot of different roles. He played in the kicking game a number of snaps, on defense, on offense. Whatever he can do to help the team, he’s got a great attitude.”
This willingness to help the team in whichever way possible has made Roberts a true three-way player for the Patriots. Besides playing 11 snaps as New England’s primary fullback since the bye, he has also been on the field for 17 snaps on defense and 16 more as part of the team’s kick return and kick coverage units. While his playing time is limited compared to other players, he is one of just two on the team to see action in all three phases this season.
“I think any time you take a guy over there that hasn’t played a lot of snaps on offense, there’s an adjustment period in terms of the way we call things, how we get in and out of plays, changing plays, et cetera, for them to get comfortable and feel really good about,” said McDaniels. “I think he’s really made strides there, I think he feels comfortable with his role each week at the game, and we’ll figure out how big or small that role’s going to be as we move forward each week.”
Roberts, of course, is not the first member of the organization to see action on offense, defense and in the kicking game simultaneously, or be used out of his normal comfort zone. Matthew Slater, the second player to be used three-way this season is one example: not only did he see his usual high number of special teams snaps, he also serves as an additional safety in Hail Mary-situations and as a part-time wide receiver as well as a deep man on kneel-downs on offense.
“If we get into those situations and we need somebody that can do that, I think he’ shown that he’s capable of it,” Belichick said about Roberts’ usage as a fullback. “We’ve done that before with other defensive players in similar situations, or some offensive linemen: [Russ] Hochstein, Dan Connolly, [Dan] Klecko, guys like that. And then use some guys at fullback like [Richard] Seymour, or a tight end like [Mike] Vrabel. So, there’s a variety of ways to get that done.”
Belichick added that the fullback spot is a tough one to play, regardless of who is lining up at the position: “There’s a lot of things that happen in front of you. You have a guy you’re assigned to block, but there’s a lot of things that happen by the time you get to the guy you’re supposed to block with the line and the movement and the defensive players and where the guy you’re blocking... if he just stands there, great, but a lot of times he moves or goes somewhere else based on the flow of the play or what the defensive line does in front of him. There’s an element to tracking a guy and making adjustments, and so forth.”
So far, however, it seems as if Roberts has convinced New England’s coaches that he is capable of doing all these things when lining up in the backfield. And his early impact on the running game cannot be denied either, as McDaniels pointed out: “He’s physical, he’s aggressive, he loves contact and hitting. I think he made a few really important blocks that would have made James Develin very proud towards the end of the game there.”