Many were surprised Tuesday when Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said during his press conference that he doesn’t view David Johnson exclusively as a fullback and that his plan is to use him in various tight end roles as well.
“We made the commitment to work him in the spring and the early portions of training camp as a fullback to give him that exposure,” said Tomlin. “But I’ve also found opportunities to play him at tight end, such as the tight ends versus the outside linebacker positions. You\’ll see when we get back from Philly that we’re going to allow him to play tight end some.”
Tomlin continued on talking about the former seventh round draft pick. “His position flexibility is an asset. He has a more of an extended past at tight end, so we focused in interim, talking about the offseason and early portion of training camp, at fullback. But we\’re not opposed to him playing tight end, and we know that he\’s capable of doing that, and he will.”
While many were surprised by the comments that Tomlin made, I wasn\’t. I would like to point you to a post I wrote back in late May when it was announced that David had a position change listing next to his name. In that post I pointed out that fullback was not a new position to DJ as he lined up at fullback roughly a quarter of the snaps that he played in 2011. Where did he line up the other three quarter of the snaps that he played? As a tight end or an h-back of course.
The extensive work that DJ has received this offseason at the fullback position, along with him now being included in the running back meetings, was likely an effort made by new offensive coordinator Todd Haley to, first, get him some extensive work at the fullback position to hone his skills, and second, allow him to better understand his role in the offense when lined up there. Now that it appears that David has gotten a firm grasp on his role when used as a fullback, it appears that during the rest of training camp that he will get more work at the tight end position to fine tune the role it appears that he will have at that position as well. Surprising at all? No, not really based on what he has done the last several seasons.
The myth that has been floating around all offseason that the Steelers will noticeably make use of a fullback more this season is likely just that, a myth, and I tried to point that out in late May as well. As I pointed out, I would be surprised if a fullback was just more than an average of 10 plays a game this season. This fits the Modus operandi of Haley as over the years during his time with the Arizona Cardinals and the Kansas City Chiefs.
A true full-time fullback is a near extinct animal now in the NFL. The position has evolved into one that revolves around such a player being versatile. That player must be able to function not only as a lead blocker type, but as a tight end and h-back as well, something that Tomlin and Haley clearly think David is able to do. So while many fans have been animate in their hopes that David will not make the 53 man roster this year, it is becoming more and more clear every day that he very well might be a lock for it.
So what does this mean for the other tight ends and fullbacks that are trying to make the roster? First, you have to remember that Weslye Saunders is slated to miss the first three games of the season due to his suspension. Second, Leonard Pope is still not a lock to make the roster despite his understanding of the Haley offense. I have pointed out since before the draft that Pope is not a strong blocker despite others writing to the contrary. Should the Steelers decide to keep him after the final cutdown, his salary would also be guaranteed for the season. Yes, Pope is a great redzone target, but is that enough of a reason to keep him for what could amount to just 3 games worth of service, despite paying him a full season? Something to think about.
Also on the training camp roster are Will Johnson and seventh round draft pick David Paulson. Will has had a good camp and his likely another player in the mold of DJ that can be used not only as a fullback, but as a tight end and h-back as well. Paulson reportedly has a ways to go in the blocking department and will likely be headed to the practice squad either after the final cutdowns, or after the third game when Saunders returns from his suspension.
The Steelers very well could end up keeping both Johnson\’s and Paulson along with starter Heath Miller to start the season. When Saunders returns, either Will or Paulson would go to the practice squad. That would leave Pope as the odd man out in this scenario.
Here are a few questions for you to answer while you watch the Thursday night game against the Philadelphia Eagles. First, how much work does any of the above players listed above not named Miller get at fullback, and more importantly, how well do they perform when they play there? Second, how well does Pope block even if he is just used exclusively at tight end? Third, which of the above players excels the most when used on special teams. Fourth, how many times during the game will an actual fullback be used?
DJ, as Tomlin clearly explained on Tuesday, has position flexibility, and we all know how important that is to the Steelers. Whichever of the other two of the three fighting for a roster spot shows that same flexibility and long-term upside will also make the roster.