The 2013 NFL Draft is only weeks away. By now, you've probably read all there is to read on the first- and second-round type prospects so instead of adding to the chorus on that, let's focus on some mid- to late-round types. I'm now in the midst of a mini-series on some of the so-called "hybrid" positions in emerging in the NFL, so an obvious place to focus is on the H-back -- a position whose name is the abbreviated form of "Hybrid Back."
The modern two-tight end set was developed by Joe Gibbs and his Redskins staff in the early 1980s. It was created as a countermeasure against 3-4 defenses in general and Lawrence Taylor in particular. Gibbs discovered that an extra tight end on the line of scrimmage was in better position than a fullback to stop Taylor and other elite blitzers. It also forced Taylor to align wider, thus lengthening the distance between him and the quarterback.
Gibbs soon learned to use the second tight end as an all-purpose blocker: That extra tight end (usually Don Warren, back in the day) might go in motion before the snap to unbalance the offensive line, or he might slip into the backfield as a fullback or sneak into pass patterns.
The modern H-back was born.
The H-back is a moveable chess piece, as Greg Cosell likes to say, and their versatile nature can be used to disguise schemes, alter formations, and confuse defenses by moving them into different positions from snap to snap and asking them to perform a wide range of duties in any given series.
From the originator, Joe Gibbs himself, "An H-back has to have good hands and be super smart," Gibbs explained. "They give you a lot of opportunities for changes in formations. If you notice, good football teams do it because it's a different complication for the defense."
A thinking defense is a slow-reacting defense. When you're sitting there worrying about a guy that you normally wouldn't worry about all that much - the fullback - that's an advantage to the offense.
Last week, I wrote about a very similar subject - the "joker" tight end, and truth be told, there's no real way of disambiguating the 'H-back' from the 'Joker' and there's no real definition for either. They're exceedingly similar positions and most people probably list them as one and the same. I won't try to convince you that there's any need to separate the two. However, when writing about potential prospects for the NFL Draft, it's probably best to have a more specific role in mind for a player so here's the way that I thought about it when setting out with this analysis:
The "Joker" tight end is a hybrid wide receiver/tight end. The "H-back" is a hybrid tight end/fullback.
There's still plenty of subjectivity therein, but that's how I pictured it. It might be similar to projecting "X" receivers from "Slot" receivers -- one position, some overlap, but different types of prospects in general.
Development of the Joker TE and H-back Position
As I wrote last week, the hybridization of NFL player positions is one of the most interesting evolutions of the modern game, and that's why I've focused on some of these 'tweener' types. One of the most celebrated hybrid positions in the changing NFL has been the joker tight end. The creation of this new position was centered around a really basic fundamental idea: using the tight end, historically a de facto offensive lineman, as a dynamic pass catcher.
Don Coryell, the legendary coach of the Chargers from 1978-1986, turned to then-offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs and future Hall of Fame TE Kellen Winslow to develop this idea, and Winslow was the first in what's become a growing group of big, insanely athletic, and versatile players at that position. As Al Saunders recollects in Ron Jaworski and Greg Cosell's book, The Games That Changed the Game:
"You have to understand how tight ends were being used in the early 1980s. Their primary function was as a blocker, then to move out to the back side as part of the route and run a drag route. Or they'd run hooks inside, or get open in the flat. That was it. They were all big guys, 'tackles' who could catch the football. Plus, outside linebackers could still grab a guy and smack him around trying to defend the run."
It pained offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs to see Winslow's talent being held back by the traditional limits of the position. "When we lined him up at the standard tight end spot and he went to release, he got pounded by the outside linebacker in a 4-3 or the inside linebacker in a 3-4," he recalled. "He had a tough time getting off clean, and we felt we had to do something. So Ernie, Don, our O-line coach, Jim Hanifan, and I said to ourselves, 'Maybe the thing to do is take him off that line of scrimmage and start moving him all over the place.'"
As Winslow recollects, "We just started playing around with it. Our coaches saw something, and so I ended up in practice running the same routes as the wide receivers. I loved running those routes, the 'skinny post,' the 'deep post'-- and there weren't many guys then at six-five, 245 who could run these traditional wideout routes. When you looked at the film, I ran the routes about as well as the wide receivers, although I was usually a step or two behind where they were."
In Jaworski's words: "What Coryell and receivers coach Ernie Zampese did with Winslow was to take a player with extraordinary pass-catching ability and create positions in which he could be the primary receiver."
Of course, after leaving San Diego and taking the reins in Washington, Gibbs further innovated the tight end position and the Winslow WR/TE hyrbrid was joined by the FB/TE hybrid as a way to better protect quarterbacks from the unequalled scariness that was one Lawrence Taylor. It's fascinating that Gibbs had such a big part in the development of two distinct off-shoot positions -- the joker tight end (WR/TE hybrid) and the H-back (TE/FB) hybrid.
The Modern Fullback
In the modern NFL, the fullback position has become somewhat an afterthought -- teams favor three- or four-receiver, one-back sets these days and the use of a lead-blocker has diminished greatly. One possible reason for this is that a traditional lead-blocking fullback is fairly one-dimensional - not dangerous with the ball in his hands, not dangerous in the passing game, simply used to take on a linebacker at the second level, pass protect, or to lay a path for the running back or run one yard on a dive for a first down. Those are important jobs for some teams and there's always going to be something timeless about a hulking, huge-neck-roll wearing fullback crashing into their defensive counterparts in middle linebackers, but the reality is that the position isn't highly valued anymore. The highest ranked fullback in most draft grading systems is a third- or fourth-round prospect.
Some teams have eliminated the position from their playbook entirely and some have refined the type of athlete they prefer at that spot. For the purpose of this exercise, let's talk about the modern utilization of the fullback position.
I study the Seahawks closely, so I'll use them as an example. Their dedicated fullback in 2012 was a former Penn State quarterback and Big-10 Player of the Year in 2005, Michael Robinson, and he served as a jack of all trades on special teams and with the offense.
Robinson uses a two-point stance and height advantage (he's 6'1, taller than most NFL RBs) as a way to note alignments, splits, movement and all that pre-and-post snap stuff to best recognize where he should lay out his lead block, to "see the defense like the runner sees the defense." It also helps a ton that Robinson played quarterback at Penn State, as he's been schooled in recognizing defenses and knowing where their weaknesses should lie, schematically. It's the 'football IQ' part of the game.
This takes you back to Gibbs' description of the modern H-back: "An H-back has to have good hands and be super smart."
Seahawks Pro-Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch refers to Robinson as 'his eyes' and has noted that he trusts Mike Rob to help lead him to daylight. As Robinson puts it - "you read it like a runner - that's why he calls me his 'eyes', because we're supposed to see the same thing."
They're not only supposed to see the same thing, they're supposed to do the same thing - and in the Seahawks zone-blocking run game, Robinson is often tasked with leading Lynch to the correct crease and picking up a defender that tries to fill it.
So, there's a distinction -- the H-back of the new generation that I envision can't just be an undersized tight end like Aaron Hernandez -- he must enjoy blocking and doing the dirty work as well. Not many people want to go head to head with someone like Patrick Willis.
Also important to Robinson's job description though is to be a dependable outlet receiver for QB Russell Wilson, and one play we saw Seattle run time and time again during the season, with very little trouble, was some variation on a play-action fake handoff to Marshawn Lynch.
"Gibbs' idea," as Werner Hessler wrote way back in 1993, "was get a mobile big man, put him in motion behind the line and call him an H-back. He could get a running start on his block, he could fake the block and be a receiver, or he could be a decoy who took a linebacker or safety with him while the play went the other way."
In Seattle's Wildcard Playoff win over the Redskins last season, Robinson scored a touchdown out of I-formation where he faked a lead block on the defensive end/outside linebacker and slipped into the flats -- the primary receiver on the play.
"He could get a running start on his block, he could fake the block and be a receiver, or he could be a decoy who took a linebacker or safety with him while the play went the other way."
The 49ers, pioneers of the Pistol formation this year with Colin Kaepernick, employ a similar style of fullback in Bruce Miller. Miller is a 6'2, 248-pound former college linebacker with a zest for blocking and doing the little things. In San Francisco's NFC Championship win over the Atlanta Falcons, Miller laid a key block on LB Stephen Nicholas that sprung Frank Gore for seven.
It's not a downhill, 100 mph lead block collision, but instead a 'arc' style block from the weakside H-back spot flanking Kaepernick. Watch #49 closely and note that he crosses against the grain of the offensive line's blocking, sneaking right in front of Gore as Kaepernick holds the defensive end, John Abraham, with a belly read-option. Brilliant. (Which I hate saying).
Of course, this type of play isn't wholly revolutionary. Fullbacks have been asked to catch short passes from time to time for years, and have been asked to lead block in different manners from different spots on the field for years now, and while Robinson and Miller's usage in the Seahawks/49ers' respective offenses are slightly more versatile than you'd expect from a traditional fullback, the line between fullback and tight end is being blurred further by teams like the Raiders, Texans and Dolphins with Marcel Reece, James Casey, and Charles Clay.
It's an increasingly pass-happy league. The concept that has begun to develop has seen coaches taking the now-time-tested-and-wholly-successful idea of using your tight end as a dynamic pass catcher and taking it one step further by adding another positional group into the equation -- specifically, the fullback.
This is nothing new to the Raiders, who have been using former Washington Husky wide receiver Marcel Reece as a jack of all trades - fullback, tight end, even starting running back. Reece's experience running routes as a receiver in college has paid dividends for him in the NFL, where he switched to the H-back position and finished 2012 with 767 all-purpose offensive yards -- 52 catches for 496 yards and a TD to go with his 59 carries for 271 yards on the ground.
In Week 11, subbing for an injured Darren McFadden, Bush rushed for 103 yards on 19 carries and added four receptions for 90 yards, including the catch-and-run from the H-back spot seen below.
Watch the nuance with which he runs his route - he sets up Darren Sharper inside before breaking out toward the sideline at exactly six-yards deep. Palmer hits Reece and he breaks Sharper's tackle and rumbles upfield.
Now, you're probably sick of my rambling so let's talk about the upcoming Draft, and which players might fit the profile as this type of multi-use threat.
NFL Draft 2013
Mychal Rivera, Tennessee - 6'3, 242
Rivera is one of the guys at the top of my list as a potential FB/TE hybrid because while he does display soft hands and an ability to find open zones in the defense downfield, he's also one of the better blocking tight ends of this subset. He's a mid- to late-round prospect and because he was stuck in an offense with Cordarelle Patterson, Justin Hunter, and Da'Rick Rogers for much of his time in Tennessee, he had to make his impact by doing the little things.
His in-line pass blocking is more than adequate - you rarely see him lunge and miss on a block or get bullrushed completely, and his run blocking is solid - when watching tape on him you'll notice that a good amount of runs go right off his flank - this means the Tennessee coaching staff trusted him with a seal or reach block on the edge and dialing up plays in his direction.
Rivera measured in at 6'3, 242 with 10 1/4" hands and 32 5/8" arms - all good size measurements and all well within the range for the H-back position at the next level.
His speed numbers are a tad underwhelming - he ran a 4.78 in the 40 (you'd like to see his 40 below a 4.7 but his game speed seems a tick faster than his 40 time would suggest), registered a 31" vert, a 9'4 broad jump, 4.43 in the short shuttle and 7.17 on the 3-cone. What he lacks in top-end explosive athleticism though, he makes up for with a solid, fundamental style of play. He can run the seam, he can block in-line, outside the formation, and downfield, and has good hands with excellent concentration to look the ball in.
Watch below as he fakes a run block and then releases downfield on a wheel-type route.
Check out more of his tape below, courtesy of the good folks at DraftBreakdown.com:
Chris Gragg, Arkansas - 6'3, 244
Chris Gragg is one of the most interesting prospects in the Draft for me because he's very hard to project. On one hand, I could see him possibly playing a joker tight end role (glorified receiver) at the next level because of his elite athleticism and former experience as a wide receiver. On the other hand, his length/strength combination would make him a nice conversion project for the more fullback-oriented role where blocking is more of a key.
Delanie Walker came out of Central Missouri as a wide receiver with very similar size/speed numbers, and made the transition with the Niners to a jack of all trades type swiss-army knife. I could see Gragg taking this route at the next level, but it largely comes down to where he lands. He could be a receiving tight end, rarely asked to block in one system, or a hand-in-the-dirt type of player like Marcel Reece in another. His athleticism is the key, and he's ahead of pretty much all other prospects in this category
He turned some heads at the Combine when he ran a 4.5 second 40 and registered a 37.5" vert, a 10-4" broad jump, a 7.08 three-cone and 4.51 short shuttle He also has long 33 5/8" arms and big 9" hands. Gragg had some injury issues in school and that's something that will likely push his stock down into the mid-rounds, but his potential is off the charts.
Below, Gragg runs the "Charles Clay Wheel Route" shown above and with a more accurately thrown football, probably scores from 55 yards out.
In Gragg's 5 games in 2012, he caught 22 passes for 289 yards - a 13.1 YPC clip, and scored 3TDs.
At the NFL level, it's all about matchups, and I'm just picturing some NFL team motioning Gragg from the backfield up to the line with his hand in the dirt, and releasing downfield while being trailed by an outside linebacker. With 4.45 speed and a head start from play-action, that's the matchup you want.
Gragg demonstrates an ability to make the tough grab and his long arms and 6'3 frame give him a very wide catching radius. Check out some more of his tape over at DraftBreakdown.
Kyle Juszczyk, Harvard - 6'1, 248
The limited tape I've seen on Juszczyk (Yoosh-check) is extremely impressive. In many ways, he reminds me of Dallas Clark, and not just because they're both white H-back types. Juszczyk just moves like the former Colt star, and shows an almost uncanny ability to get open downfield - stopping in zones, selling routes one way and going another, and plucking the ball cleanly then picking up yards after the catch.
Juszczyk led the Ivy League in 2012 with 8 TDs and led his Harvard offense with 52 catches for 706 yards (13.6 ypc). He finished with first on the Harvard tight end list all-time with 125 catches (6th all-time for all receivers at Harvard) for 1,576 yards (7th all-time) and 22 touchdowns (3rd all-time).
Juszczyk may be the most 'fullbacky' of the bunch in height/weight distribution at a stocky 6'1, 248 pounds, but he actually played as a tight end for the most part for Harvard, and his route-running and smoothness with the football in his hands shines through. He's fearless over the middle and doesn't shy away from contact once he's made the catch.
Watch him sell his short curl route below then explode upfield past two defenders for a touchdown. Now, imagine him running routes like this out of an I-formation after lead-blocking on the previous snap. Defenses just won't know what to expect.
If the tape alone (Draft Breakdown) doesn't impress you, his speed/agility numbers should. At 6'1, 248, he ran the 40 in 4.71 seconds, registered a 37-inch vertical jump and a 10-foot-1 broad jump, ran the short shuttle in 4.19 seconds and the three-cone drill in 6.93 seconds. The, vert, broad jump, short shuttle number the three cone number are in wide receiver territory so more important than Juszczyk's open field long-distance speed are his agility and explosion ratings. A sub-7.0 second 3-cone for a player that size is super impressive, in particular. Oh, and he also benched 225 pounds 24 times, so the upper body strength is there - something that's important for a guy that'll be asked to pick up blitzes and lead block at the next level.
Juszczyk worked out as a fullback at the Senior Bowl and his pro day and has been getting rave reviews. As Rob Rang put it, while watching the Harvard H-back down in Mobile:
The traditional lead-blocking fullback might be going the way of the dinosaurs for many teams in today's spread-heavy NFL, but scouts still appreciated the physical, no-nonsense play from Juszczyk. The solidly build 6-2, 248-pounder cleared running lanes for the North's running backs (including Dave Richard's top-ranked back from the Senior Bowl) and consistently knocked linebackers to the ground in pass protection.
You can watch some of Juszczyk's snaps here:
Obviously, Juszszyk's potential intrigues me, and it wouldn't surprise me to see him get selected as high as the fourth round, possibly by one of the new-school read-option pistol teams like San Francisco, Seattle, Carolina or Washington.
Phillip Lutzenkirchen, Auburn - 6'3, 258
Lutzenkirchen (that's the last time I write that - I'm just going to call him Lutz) is a lunch-pail kind of guy and lined up all over for Auburn's offense - in-line, h-back, fullback, and in the slot. He's a big 6'3, 258 with 33 1/4" arms and 10 1/4" mitts, and his size is certainly intriguing. He's not the most athletic of the bunch - a 4.93 40, but buoyed someone by a respectable 7.15 3-cone and 4.35 short shuttle - but he's a good blocker and an amazing 14 of his 44 career receptions went for touchdowns.
He's a red-zone threat, simply.
Regardless, his experience lining up at multiple spots for the Tigers makes him an intriguing prospect, and again, he's a guy you can leave in to pass protect or run him up the seam. As you can see below, he welcomes contact.
Justice Cunningham, South Carolina - 6'3, 258
Like Mychal Rivera, Cunningham will likely fall because he didn't put up great numbers at South Carolina and may not be as fast as some teams will like, but his nasty demeanor on the field and his top-tier blocking ability for this class of tight ends will likely find him a home with a team late in the draft or in rookie free agency.
Cunningham was used all over the formation for South Carolina and had a variety of roles. Blocking was probably his first priority, but he was used in the slot as a primary receiver when the matchups dictated it.
Cunningham measured out with very similar numbers to Philip Lutzenslsdjdskldfjf at 6'2, 258 with 33.88" arms and 10" hands. He ran the 40 in 4.94 but actually managed a 1.64 10-yard split - better than the class' top tight end in Tyler Eifert. This shows explosiveness in short areas - which is likely more important for the type of role he'll find at the next level anyway (he improved on his combine 10-yard split at his pro day, where he ran it in 1.59 - very impressive). He registered a 31.5" vert, a 7.12 3-cone and a 4.45 short shuttle at the Combine as well.
Watching Cunningham's tape (DraftBreakdown), it's clear he's not exactly a smooth operator when it comes to route running or running after the catch, but he does get the job done as an in-line blocker and was even used as a true fullback in the I-formation from time to time with South Carolina.
The varied usage of Cunningham at South Carolina leads me to believe he'd be an interesting prospect for the new-school style of hybrid, part pass catcher, part blocker.
Other intriguing prospects for this position: