Gone are the days of the Minnesota Vikings stubbornly attempting to establish a running game. They have hired former Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell, and the Vikings are almost assuredly going to head into a more progressive offensive approach. While players like Justin Jefferson will be excited, a player like fullback C.J. Ham may not possess the same positive outlook on his future.
In 2021, only four teams used 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end) less frequently than the Vikings did. At first glance, that would indicate that these teams were stuck in an offensive philosophy better suited for 1987. However, the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns are two of the teams who ran 11 personnel at a lower rate than Minnesota’s 47% clip. But both of those teams boasted top-five running games in 2021, while the Vikings ranked a pedestrian 17th.
Many believe that the fullback position is a dying breed and represents an outdated offensive philosophy. But several teams, including the Ravens and Browns, have shown that it is possible to employ modern offensive attacks with a fullback. Out of the final eight teams in the 2021 NFL playoffs, four had a combination of fullbacks log at least 100 snaps on the year. This ranged from pass-happy teams like the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills to run-oriented teams like the San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans.
The Vikings utilized Ham at fullback more than almost any other team in the league. His 376 snaps from scrimmage ranked only behind 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk (714) and Ravens fullback Patrick Ricard (554). The Vikings didn’t target Ham as often as San Francisco did Juszczyk, who caught 30 passes for 296 yards and a touchdown. But Ham’s 17 receptions for 125 yards cleared Ricard’s eight receptions for 63 yards. To his credit, Ricard did record a touchdown.
Ricard wasn’t alone among fullbacks when it came to smaller production. Buffalo Bills fullback Reggie Gilliam ranked second among all fullbacks in run-block grade, only behind Ricard. His three receptions for 23 yards paled compared to backup Bills tight end Tommy Sweeney.
What this shows us, though, is that there isn’t just one way to use a fullback in today’s NFL. So why doesn’t every team carry one on their roster? Neither of this year’s Super Bowl representatives, the Rams and Cincinnati Bengals, had a fullback on the roster in 2021. When asked about it this year, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor offered an explanation.
“The bottom line is you have 53 roster spots,” Taylor said. “It’s a matter of, are you going to use it enough for a roster spot? It’s about, if you use them enough to validate that 53rd spot, and for us, we’ve carried three tight ends and mixed and matched those guys.”
Ham’s numbers outpace anything that the Rams had to offer from their backup tight ends in 2022 as well. Kendall Blanton, Brycen Hopkins, and Johnny Mundt combined for six receptions and 55 yards during the regular season. Mundt earned a higher run-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus, though, grading at a 71.0 compared to Ham’s 61.0.
After tight end Irv Smith, Jr. went down with an ACL injury before the 2021 regular season, Minnesota carried five different tight ends on their roster. Of the group, only Tyler Conklin caught more passes than Ham. And only Chris Herndon achieved a higher run-blocking grade than Ham out of all the tight ends. Both are set to become free agents when free agency hits next week.
Keeping either Conklin or Herndon appears unlikely with a plethora of needs across the Vikings’ roster. Conklin has likely earned a fairly lucrative market, and the Vikings won’t invest in that sort of deal with Smith, a more dynamic talent, returning. Herndon was non-existent throughout 2021, and Minnesota isn’t likely to retain him.
That would mean that there is likely a spot on the roster for a fullback like Ham. O’Connell may have learned under McVay, but McVay’s roots go back to when he learned under Washington Commanders head coach Mike Shanahan in 2013. Shanahan’s offensive coordinator was his son, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who learned the same offense as McVay. And we’ve already discussed Shanahan’s love for using a fullback.
It appears that O’Connell is open to the idea of using a fullback moving forward as well. Last week he explained his desire to “be more multiple,” name-dropping Ham in the process. O’Connell added that some things from previous years in Minnesota will carry over in 2022 to aid comfortability. Ham also only carries a cap hit of $3.45 million in 2022, meaning he likely wouldn’t be cut strictly due to his contract.
Ham’s inclusion in the 2022 Vikings offense wouldn’t be part of the modern NFL’s norm. But his contributions wouldn’t be unprecedented either. Some teams use their fullbacks as another offensive weapon; others use them strictly as blockers. Ham, a former college running back, has shown the skillset to do both.