This is an urgent message from Jets X-Factor to Joe Douglas and the New York Jets: Please put Kyle Juszczyk at the top of your list.
The picturesque vision of Larry Csonka rumbling in Super Bowl 7 and 8 is something that helped build the modern NFL. John Riggins‘s rumble in Super Bowl 17 not only put the Washington Football Team on the Super Bowl-winning board, but it also added onto the physical reality of the game. Even Matt Snell accounted for the New York Jets‘ lone touchdown in Super Bowl 3.
Fullbacks have always enjoyed a special piece of football real estate in fans’ hearts and minds. Imagining the sights of NFL Films and the sound of John Facenda when a Csonka or Riggins rumbled and bumbled his way to the Super Bowl end zone brings a warm feeling nearly impossible to match.
How wonderful … and hard-hitting … and bruising … and complicated?
As fast as your nostalgic brain remembered the days of yesteryear is as quickly as you’ll need to remove that poison from your minds. The position has been at a crossroads for decades—something that’s not soon to conclude.
Yet, if there’s one NFL team that’s ready to call it a fullback comeback, it’s your Jets. Kyle Juszczyk needs to be at the top of the list this offseason.
Juszczyk, 29, will turn 30 in April. That’s right: This guy is a running back on the wrong side of 30. Worse yet, he’s a free agent running back that’ll cost a decent penny—something smart general managers usually avoid.
The Harvard product (yeah, he’s smart) is also a rotational player. Despite the Shanahan system’s need for a rostered fullback, the position doesn’t exactly remain on the field often. Juszczyk has averaged 30.3 offensive snaps per game over the last seven seasons, equaling about 45 percent of his team’s plays.
Do you actually believe that’s enough to steer me away from promoting a potential Jets-Juszczyk marriage? Come on, now. Don’t be silly.
While the overwhelming truth is that signing veteran running backs to big money is a terrible idea for the majority of program-building situations, it simply doesn’t apply here. Juszczyk is no running back.
The days of the fullback so snugly belonging to the running back position ended at least two decades ago. Gone are the days when the fullback shared the carry-the-rock load. Gone are the days when Bill Walsh’s west coast offense did wonders for the split-back look.
This past season, only 24 fullbacks were rostered and under contract in the NFL, per Spotrac. Each is used uniquely, depending on the offensive scheme, and this number even includes some tight ends (i.e. Trevon Wesco). Just understand that the position is on life support and only a handful of teams even roster the position these days.
Nevertheless, fullback belongs more in the tight end role these days. In Juszczyk’s case, a tight end designation would minimize his contributions.
He can run it, catch it, block them and do it all in a physical, hard-working style that galvanizes locker rooms. The man’s intrinsic value is through the roof—a fact Jets general manager Joe Douglas would never ignore.
First and foremost, he plays. This fullback (who’s undeniably smarter than you) has missed just six games in his eight-year NFL career (possible 128 games). As intriguing as Douglas’s first draft class looks and feels, he definitely missed the mark in the injury department up to this point.
Mekhi Becton, Denzel Mims, Bryce Hall, La’Mical Perine, Cameron Clark and Ashtyn Davis all missed time via injury this past season. It’s particularly concerning for Becton, a man whose availability needs to be analyzed at least a little heading into 2021. Juszczyk won’t miss games and provides a stable presence at the position.
Why would the Jets sign a veteran fullback to an overvalued contract when they’re in the midst of a team-rebuild that needs to focus on youth and development? Well, repeat those last two words: “youth” and “development.”
If LaFleur’s offense looks anything like Kyle Shanahan’s, a lock fullback is essential. Trevon Wesco can be that de facto guy—as he was a year ago in the Adam Gase system—but owning two options at the position while both can also play in-line tight end is a fantastic starting point.
Juszczyk’s blocking and veteran leadership within a system he fully grasps is akin to the kind of development a beastly offensive line provides. His toughness is also a factor when attempting to grow a program—as all traits within the locker room have a chance to rub off on others.
That’s not all. When asked to tote the rock, he usually comes through. Converting on 16 of 22 career carries with one-or-fewer yards to go, Juszczyk immediately needs a Chris Berman nickname. This gives him a 72.7% success rate, good enough to edge out the 70.9% league average that’s played out over the course of his career, per Jets X-Factor’s Michael Nania.
Oh yeah, he can also catch it.
Bell was different. Bell was obvious. Bell equaled desperation on the part of Mike Maccagnan and the organization. Snagging a veteran running back coming off a missed season to big dollars without a prime time offensive line ready to roll was as silly (if not sillier) than anything done in the John Idzik years.
But Bell, the featured back, is a long way off from Juszczyk, a guy who can do a little bit of everything, up to and including system knowledge and leadership qualities. The NFL featured back is a truly devalued position, while the fullback’s value falls more in line with the tight end.
It’s all about the dough. It’s always about the dough, as the key, as usual, will come down to cost.
Juszczyk’s $5.250 million salary over the last four seasons was undoubtedly a bloated contract. The Niners have already claimed they want to keep the man, but it’s obvious that his price will drop. With Juszczyk technically on the open market, the highest-paid fullback is Pittsburgh Steelers’ Derek Watt, a man currently averaging $3.250 million a season.
Perhaps a one or two-year deal somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 or $4.5 million a season works. Will he be overpaid when scoping out the position league-wide? Yes. Is there a chance he showcases a steep decline in production? Perhaps. But will he also plug a much-needed hole not only in the LaFleur offense but the Jets’ locker room? You better believe it.
Intelligence helps spark more intelligence. Toughness helps incite more toughness. Proven winners help ignite more winners. Robert Saleh believes in that theory, as does the man himself, who called the Jets head man the “ultimate leader” on the Haberman and Middlekauff show.
“Saleh’s just a leader, man,” Juszczyk recently proclaimed. “He’s a guy that everybody just wants to follow. He motivates. He gives the best Saturday night, pre-game, pep talks. He makes you want to slam your head through the wall and light yourself on fire. This guy is the ultimate motivator and the ultimate leader.”
The fullback position will never exude the same top-notch football appeal it once did. Your old-school dreams of Csonka, Riggins and Snell doing their fullback things in Super Bowls will remain far-fetched fantasies in today’s NFL, courtesy of the sheer discrimination fullbacks feel on a yearly basis. (Perhaps only defensive backs can relate in today’s pass-happy craziness.)
Good thing Kyle Juszczk is much more than a fullback. Good thing he’s much more than a football player. And good thing Joe Douglas understands that building a program doesn’t come down to on-field production only. Employing humans who possess winning traits is just as critical.
Go get the great modern fullback, Jets. It’s the right football move in this fullback-foreign land.
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