When Bruce Arians was hired as the Arizona Cardinals’ head coach in 2013, he didn’t waste any time eliminating a position from the roster.
“I’m not a fullback guy. I never have been,” Arians told reporters a couple months after his hire.
A couple more months later, the Cardinals traded Anthony Sherman to the Atlanta Falcons. For the next five years, the team didn’t have a fullback on the roster.
During the 2017 season, Arizona was one of five teams — along with the Bengals, Colts, Rams, and Eagles — that didn’t use a fullback once. Another five teams — the Dolphins, Lions, Giants, Buccaneers, and Washington — ran plays with players of other positions filling in as temporary fullbacks.
But Arians retired in January, paving the way for new Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks to bring the fullback position back to the desert.
“Within our system, the things that we do, a fullback is a part of that offense and it’s been a part of that offense for a while with [Mike] McCoy, and even the same thing for me in Carolina,” Wilks said at Cardinals’ rookie minicamp Friday. “We think that’s a major part of what we’re doing and we want to bring in a guy that’s going to shore up that position for us.”
McCoy spent the 2017 season as the offensive coordinator of the Broncos, where Andy Janovich was on the field for close to 15 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. Wilks was the defensive coordinator for the Panthers, a team that only had fullback Alex Armah on the field for 46 — or 4.3 percent — of the team’s offensive snaps.
But even if Denver and Carolina didn’t rely too heavily on fullbacks, four months after Arizona hired Wilks, the Cardinals already have three on the roster. Running back Elijhaa Penny was moved to fullback in May, the team signed Austin Ramesh as an undrafted free agent, and most recently signed former Seahawks and Falcons fullback Derrick Coleman.
“We really didn’t have a true fullback on the roster,” Wilks said.
The addition of fullbacks in Arizona also makes sense given the team’s direction — regardless of the coaching situation. Following the retirement of Carson Palmer, the Cardinals signed injury-prone Sam Bradford to be the likely starter and drafted Josh Rosen in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
With Pro Bowl running back David Johnson returning from a wrist injury that cost him 15 games in 2017, it makes sense for the Cardinals to lean on their young star in the backfield and avoid relying too much on a veteran quarterback who may get hurt or a rookie quarterback lacking in experience.
And what better way to bank on Johnson than to give him the first fullback in Arizona since the 2012 season?
The battle for a roster spot between Coleman, Ramesh, and Penny isn’t the flashiest competition. And it will garner much less hype than the Cardinals’ decision to name a starting quarterback. But it’s one worth watching anyway for a team that hasn’t had a fullback in five years.