ALLEN PARK, Mich. – It is a position that on the face of things is disappearing from the highest levels of football. As college and NFL teams head to more passing-based offenses with receivers and tight ends and running backs all over the field, the fullback has been slowly phased into the background.
In Detroit, however, the Lions are reviving the position after not having a true fullback last season. The shift in offensive philosophies from Scott Linehan to new coordinator Joe Lombardi assisted in that transition. With Lombardi essentially bringing large parts of the New Orleans Saints’ offense with him to Detroit, the need for a fullback intensified.
In response, the Lions signed Jed Collins – the fullback in New Orleans last season – and kept hybrid halfback/fullback Montell Owens around. In addition, one of the priority free agents the team brought in was Florida State fullback Chad Abram.
“It’s an important spot for us,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “Fortunately those first two guys have a lot of experience and background, have done quite a bit.”
They are, though, completely different.
Collins is a more traditional blocking fullback, and while he can carry the ball in short-yardage situations and has 39 career receptions, he would primarily be used as a blocker. Owens has been used similarly in the past, but did have 42 carries for 209 yards in 2012 for Jacksonville.
Owens’ flexibility makes him intriguing with the new offense Detroit will employ and also because of roster limitations.
“I’m not a traditional fullback,” Owens said. “That’s something (general manager Martin) Mayhew’s expressed. That’s something that obviously throughout my career has been known throughout the NFL.
“I’m more of a hybrid guy, so you’ll see me on both ends of the deal. You’ll see me not only at the tailback, but you’ll also see me at the fullback. As far as that role expanding, the fullback role within this offense, it’s really going to be something that is going to bring another element.”
It also leaves Detroit with some options. If the Lions believe Owens can be enough of a tailback to either double as or become the fourth running back, it could put pressure on Mikel Leshoure. It could also give the Lions more roster flexibility at other positions if there is a crunch at cornerback, receiver or linebacker, for instance.
Or, it could leave open the small possibility of keeping Owens and Collins because their skill sets are so different. Special teams will come into play also, as whoever the Lions keep will end up having a major role there.
No matter the personnel situation, the Lions are likely to use the fullback about a third of the time in the offense, as New Orleans has done over the past few years.
“Obviously third down and long, fullback doesn’t belong on the field, things like that, red zone, if they are in certain defenses, they are not going to be out there,” Collins said. “You humble yourself and you understand where you belong, but in 70 plays, I don’t see any reason the fullback isn’t in there a good part of it, a good chunk.”
And even though Collins was brought in and has more experience in this offense than any other player except for running back Reggie Bush, he is not surprised to have competition for the job. He expected it.
“I’m a no-name bubble guy, undrafted, so I know they are trying to replace me every season,” Collins said. “I’ve been cut a dozen times; it’s nothing new to me. I never expected to be given anything because it’s never been like that in my career.
“I see Montell. I see Chad. I understand what they bring to the table and I’m hoping just that the Detroit Lions need what Jed Collins brings.”
Whether he wins the job or not might depend on exactly the role the Lions are looking for out of the fullback in the offense.