The NFL is an onion. Just when you feel that you have got it figured out, you pull back another layer and the whole landscape has changed. Very few teams/coaches are at the forefront of change, but many follow suit after success is apparent.
The center of all NFL change is based on creating mismatches. It doesn’t matter whether it is coming from a defensive or offensive mind. If a coach can get an edge by altering the norm, then it’s advantageous to implement the scheme into the team’s philosophy. With the NFL being a copycat league, it’s only a matter of time before 31 other staffs, that watch this original coach’s film, catch on and extract the new wrinkle into their offense or defense. It’s how the 4-6 defense, run and shoot, west coast offense, etc, have all become a part of NFL lore. In the NFL, you either evolve or become extinct. It’s called the N(ot) F(or) L(ong) for a reason.
The H-Back position is not a new concept. The change though, comes from the purpose of the position. Initially, the position was created to have a majority of the focus on blocking, but with the ability of extensive route knowledge and complementary hands. In it’s simplest definition, it’s a hybrid fullback/tight end position. The H-back is a player that displays adequate blocking ability and the understanding and athletic ability to run routes from multiple locations, the latter becoming of more importance in recent years.
The traditional H-back position slowly died off with the decreased role of the fullback in the modern NFL. As the NFL has morphed into a much more passer friendly league over the last several years, the H-back position has risen from the dead with a vengeance. The new look H-back still displays the ability to block from a traditional fullback position and from the line as a tight end, but their main focus is to be a mismatch problem for the defense in the passing game.
Bill Belichick is usually one of the first coaches to latch on to any new wrinkle that gives his team an advantage. He routinely adds branches off of the main trunk of thought. The new era H-back was no different. What he has done with Aaron Hernandez has created a ripple effect throughout the NFL. Hernandez can be seen lining out wide as a receiver, from the tight end position, and you can even see him taking carries out of the backfield.
There is no definition to the new H-backs. They now are ran by the “positional homeless” people coming up from the college football ranks. What I mean by that is, guys that are athletically gifted enough to play in the NFL, but don’t have an ideal position. They may be too small for an in-line tight end, too big for a receiver, not agile enough, or maybe not a great blocker. In this melting pot of a position, offenses can now throw this previously untapped raw talent in and mold it into a red zone threat, a quarterback’s security blanket, a personal protector of a mobile quarterback, or just another weapon that the defense is forced to account for.
Some people might not be buying into the thought that there is an actual trend. But, over the last couple of years, teams have been more willing to take these late round “positional homeless” guys. There’s more to the H-back position working in an offense than the player selected. The coaches have to know how to utilize his talents within the offense and they are meant to be complementary pieces, not the focus point. Here’s a list of recent draftees, free agents, and possible developmental H-backs that teams may hope to see flourish in their offense as an athletic, versatile H-back;
Buffalo Bills: Dorin Dickerson – 6’1 – 227
Miami Dolphins: Charles Clay – 6’3 – 245
Houston Texans: James Casey – 6’3 – 240
Oakland Raiders: Marcel Reece – 6’2 – 240
Cleveland Browns: Brad Smelley – 6’2 – 233
Pittsburgh Steelers: David Paulson – 6’3 – 241
Philadelphia Eagles: Emil Igwenagu – 6’1 – 245
Washington Redskins: Niles Paul – 6’1 – 224
Chicago Bears: Evan Rodriguez – 6’1 – 233
Green Bay Packers: DJ Williams – 6’2 – 245
Minnesota Vikings: Rhett Ellison – 6’5 – 250
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Drake Dunsmore – 6’2 – 235
It’s worth noting that two teams in the Patriots division have made conscious efforts in acquiring a player with the intangibles of a divisional foe, like Aaron Hernandez. New England also saw the benefit in Dorin Dickerson. Hernandez’ role with the Patriots was so paramount in their run up to the Super Bowl that Belichick added Dickerson on the roster as insurance. New England would have placed Dorin in that role if any injury would have forced Hernandez out for a certain period of time.
Now, a year later, Dickerson is prepared to do for Buffalo what he witnessed first hand in practicing weekly with the Patriots. It also seems as if the NFC is playing catch-up to the new era H-back trend. The AFC has seen over the last several years the importance of the position and the headaches it causes when you have to game plan to stop or should I say slow it down.
This will definitely be something to watch as we enter the 2012 season. Don’t be surprised if you start hearing several of the above listed names on Sundays. If that turns out to be the case, don’t expect to see the guys that are “too small to play tight end in the NFL” lasting to the last round of the draft anymore.