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The Jets should probably rethink their approach to the fullback position

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Atlanta Falcons v New York Jets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

After 10 games, one of the most confounding things about the Jets offense has been their use - or lack thereof - of the fullback position. Let’s investigate how much they’ve done this and how effective they’ve been so we can draw some conclusions about whether changes should be made.

The Jets don’t have a fullback on their roster after the preseason competition between converted defensive lineman Lawrence Thomas and priority undrafted free agent Dimitri Flowers ended with neither being able to prove themselves worthy of a spot. Supposedly that wasn’t a problem because any of the team’s four (now three) tight ends could handle playing there.

However, this afterthought approach to the position doesn’t really mesh with how running game coordinator Rick Dennison usually opts to install his running schemes. In addition, running backs coach Stump Mitchell seemed to suggest that he felt the position was extremely important last year, when he said this:

”We will have a fullback, and he will be productive in this offense [...] We’re trying to be somewhat of a west coast offense where there are times where you use the fullback. I’m excited about that position [...] I don’t just want a damn fullback, I want the best fullback. Every fullback I’ve coached has been the best fullback. So that’s what I expect from them. No excuses. [...] You’ve got to be the best at it. It’s that plain and simple.”

However, if you paid close attention, the Jets didn’t line anyone up at fullback for even a single snap in the recent loss to the Bears and the outcome was that their running backs combined to average less than two yards per carry (19-35 to be exact). Was this an outlier or have they effectively phased out the position? Let’s investigate...

Game by game

Here’s how often the Jets have used a fullback from game to game. As you can see, it seems to vary from week to week, obviously depending on that week’s game plan which is presumably tailored towards the opponent.

The obvious thing that jumps out is that Denver game, where of course the Jets rushed for 323 yards in their best rushing performance of the year by a mile.

This - like the Bears game - may just be an outlier, but the fact they had more success running the football in that game than any other is worth considering. Of course, the fact that they were having success meant they stuck with the running game longer and had more overall running plays than usual, but it’s still interesting.

As you can see, they started using the fullback position less and less over the next few weeks and then reintroduced it in the Miami game with less successful results. So, suddenly using a fullback more won’t necessarily fix things overnight, but could be worth considering.

Player by Player

Predictably, the player who has been used most at fullback is Eric Tomlinson (37 snaps). The other three tight ends have 31 snaps between them, although Neal Sterling was initially getting more fullback snaps than anyone until he got injured. The Jets also put an offensive lineman there for one snap.

The first thing to note is that when Tomlinson is at fullback, it’s usually because the Jets are going to run the ball. 32 of those 37 snaps were running plays. Only 10 of the 32 snaps with someone else at fullback were conventional running plays.

Of course, this makes the Jets pretty predictable when they line someone up at fullback. That can create diminishing returns if the team is going to use Tomlinson there, because the defense will anticipate the run and be more effective at stopping it. Of course this also creates an opportunity for a tendency breaker where play action could work or perhaps Tomlinson himself could leak out for a big play.

It’s obvious why they would run with Tomlinson as the fullback. He’s clearly a more effective blocker in that role than any of the others. On 30 plays with Tomlinson at fullback, the Jets have gained 154 yards (ignoring two plays that were negated by penalties). That’s almost a yard per carry more than the 4.1 they’ve averaged for the year as a whole. If they tried to run with anyone else at fullback (excluding kneeldowns) they’ve gained just 11 yards on 10 plays.

Of course, much of that production came from that Denver game, where the Jets gained 108 yards on 17 carries with Tomlinson at fullback.

However, if we exclude that game, the Jets as a team average 3.4 per carry and the 13 other plays with Tomlinson at fullback have still averaged slightly more at 3.5 per carry.

If the Jets put someone else in at fullback, they’re much more likely to pass than they are with Tomlinson in there. So far they haven’t had great success in doing so though (5-for-11, 64 yards, one sack, one interception). It’s been more effective than passing with Tomlinson at fullback though (1-for-3, 12 yards, two sacks).

Conclusions

Clearly the Jets are not using the fullback position very much and, in some games, basically don’t use it at all. It seems like the whole playbook is rarely open for an entire game as the Jets prefer to focus on different aspects, which can lead to frustration if the gameplan isn’t working and adjustments don’t seem to be being made.

When they do use a fullback, it’s obvious that Tomlinson is the guy. However, there’s two problems with that. Number one is that, as a blocker, Tomlinson is a better tight end than fullback, so you’re making him less effective by using him in this way. Number two is that Tomlinson is a better blocker than the other tight ends, so employing him at fullback means someone else has to undertake the blocking tight end role, so you’re reducing the effectiveness of that position as well.

While there perhaps isn’t a direct correlation between fullback usage and in-game results, the overall trend seems to be that the more they use the fullback, the more success they have running the ball. Maybe this is nothing more than a function of a more varied gameplan, but it at least seems to be something that they should try to do more of.

With that in mind, perhaps they should bring in a proper fullback instead of trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Then Tomlinson can be the blocking tight end on these plays and perhaps the team will start to get their running game going again.

While the fullback may be considered a relic of the past, Dennison is on the staff because of his past successes. It certainly makes you wonder if the coaches are even on the same page offensively.