Nick Bawden is vying to bring back the fullback in New York
In the 2022 NFL season, only 18 of the league’s 32 teams gave at least one offensive snap to a player who is officially listed as a fullback. Just 13 fullbacks played at least 100 offensive snaps.
Scientists have classified fullbacks as an endangered species. As teams pass more, run less, and rely heavier on personnel packages that value speed above strength, fullbacks have been abandoned by the majority of NFL offenses.
But there are a select few teams who continue to feature the fullback – and many of those teams are successful on offense.
Five fullbacks played at least 200 offensive snaps in 2022:
- Patrick Ricard, Ravens (697)
- Kyle Juszczyk, 49ers (521)
- Alec Ingold, Dolphins (418)
- Jakob Johnson, Raiders (302)
- Keith Smith, Falcons (259)
Those five teams achieved an average ranking of 11.0 in offensive DVOA. Baltimore was 12th, San Francisco was sixth, Miami was seventh, Las Vegas was 17th, and Atlanta was 13th.
This success holds up if we extend the sample to the past five seasons. Dating back to 2018, there have been 25 teams who had a fullback play at least 200 snaps in a season, and those teams achieved an average ranking of 12.6 in offensive DVOA – 18 of the 25 ranked in the top 16.
This is not to say that using a fullback directly caused these teams to succeed offensively. It’s not a case of “if you use fullbacks, you will likely be good on offense”. Rather, the point is that fullbacks can still contribute to a successful offense in the modern NFL.
Bawden is drawing some attention in training camp for his surprisingly hefty involvement in the offense. He’s receiving reps with the first-team offense and has caught some passes from Aaron Rodgers.
FB Nick Bawden, who missed last season with an injury, seeing some snaps in the starting offense. Could add another dimension to Hackett’s offense. #Jets
— Dennis Waszak Jr. (@DWAZ73) July 20, 2023
After a few runs, a false start and a dropped pass, the #Jets’ offense gets a short completion from Aaron Rodgers to Nick Bawden and then Rodgers zips a pass across the middle to Corey Davis.
— Dennis Waszak Jr. (@DWAZ73) July 21, 2023
Aaron Rodgers features a bit of craftiness on his first rep of the second go-around: a quick one to Conklin based *purely* on the formation and what the D was showing him. He knew it would be there pre-snap.
Next play, another quick one, this time to Bawden, taking what the D…
— Robby Sabo (@RobbySabo) July 22, 2023
Is there a legitimate chance for Bawden to make the team?
Who is Nick Bawden?
Bawden was a seventh-round pick out of San Diego State in the 2018 draft, chosen 237th overall by Detroit. He lasted with the Lions until he was waived in June 2021, although he missed the entirety of the 2018 and 2020 seasons due to knee injuries. In 2019, Bawden played 124 offensive snaps and 181 special teams snaps in 10 games.
The Jets signed Bawden to their practice squad in September 2021. He was promoted to the active roster in late November and wound up playing in New York’s final nine games.
Bawden was a key special teams player for the Jets, logging 166 special teams snaps, but he also carved out a small role on offense, playing 57 offensive snaps in nine games (6.3 per game).
While it was a minuscule sample size, the Jets enjoyed great results when the 6-foot-2, 245-pound mauler was on the field. Here is a look at how the Jets performed across Bawden’s 57 offensive snaps:
- 22 pass plays for 163 yards (7.4 yards per play)
- 35 run plays for 176 yards (5.0 yards per play)
Those are stellar numbers. For reference, 7.4 yards per pass play would have ranked second-best in 2022 (behind the Chiefs’ 7.5) while 5.0 yards per rush attempt would have ranked fourth-best.
On film, you can see that Bawden’s blocking in both phases directly contributed to many of those yards. Bawden blocked well in his short time on the field. Not only did he win his battles consistently, but when he won, he won handily; often creating a substantial amount of movement.
On one play, the Jets used the threat of Bawden’s blocking to create an easy catch for him. Bawden lined up in the slot and the Jets faked a screen to Elijah Moore on Bawden’s side. Bawden’s defender bit on the fake, turning Bawden loose for a free 20-yard catch.
The Jets’ alignment on this play was identical to a play that occurred earlier in the same quarter. Bawden lined up in the slot and the Jets did pitch the ball to Elijah Moore, with Bawden serving as the lead blocker. Bawden executed a tremendous block and Moore picked up a large gain.
Having established the threat of this play earlier, the Jets were able to build something different off of it later on. It’s an example of the creative options that fullbacks present to the offensive coordinator.
Does Nathaniel Hackett use fullbacks?
Jets offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has a mixed history with the fullback position. His teams have valued it in some years and ignored it in others.
As the Broncos’ head coach in 2022, Hackett did utilize a fullback often. Denver rostered Andrew Beck and gave him 198 offensive snaps, ranking as the sixth-most among fullbacks. Beck averaged 15.2 offensive snaps per game across his 13 appearances.
However, for the most part, the Packers did not value fullbacks during Hackett’s three-year tenure as the offensive coordinator (2019-21). Green Bay did not give any snaps to fullbacks in 2021 or 2020. On the contrary, the Packers did use a fullback in 2019, Hackett’s first season. Danny Vitale ranked sixth at the position with 170 offensive snaps (11.3 per game).
Hackett did rely on a fullback in each of his two full seasons as the Jaguars’ offensive coordinator (2017-18), and it was the same man each year: former Jets draft pick Tommy Bohanon. In 2017, Bohanon ranked third at his position with 274 offensive snaps (17.1 per game), and in 2018, Bohanon ranked sixth with 160 snaps (10.0 per game).
It’s worth noting the Jacksonville and Denver seasons likely tell us more about Hackett’s philosophies than his Green Bay seasons. Hackett called plays for the Jaguars and did so for most of his lone season with the Broncos until he relinquished duties late in the season (and was fired shortly thereafter). In Green Bay, head coach Matt LaFleur called plays and was the primary offensive mind.
If we take out the Green Bay seasons, we see that Hackett had a top-six fullback (in snaps) in each of his past three seasons as the offensive play caller. This is a glaring sign that the Jets could be planning to feature the position in 2023.
But since Hackett is reuniting with Aaron Rodgers, it begs the question: Will Hackett lean closer to his own personal tendencies (which suggest heavy fullback usage) or the LaFleur-led Packers offense that he ran with Rodgers (which did not value fullbacks)?
For now, it’s unclear what Hackett’s offense will look like in terms of how much he draws from each of his past destinations. It could be a full-on Packers replica, a blend of the Packers and Hackett’s personal ideas, or perhaps a brand-new spin on Hackett’s philosophies that is adapted to fit the Jets’ roster and the present-day version of Rodgers. We don’t know. All we do know is that there are strong signs Hackett is a fan of fullbacks.
While fullbacks were not a fixture in Green Bay during Rodgers and Hackett’s time together, it’s not as if Rodgers has never found success with them before. In fact, he had a top-flight fullback beside him for many years. From 2008 to 2015, John Kuhn wreaked havoc in Green Bay with Rodgers, averaging 19.5 snaps per game over 123 appearances and making three Pro Bowls in the process. Rodgers even threw eight touchdowns to Kuhn in the regular season and another three in the playoffs.
What is Bawden’s path to the roster?
It seemed like Bawden was on track to make the Jets’ roster in 2022 following his short but promising 2021 stint. However, he was unavailable for most of the offseason with an undisclosed injury and went on season-ending injured reserve in August, marking his third lost season in four years.
Fast forward to 2023, and despite his injury woes, Bawden appears to be in a good spot under a new offensive regime. He’s getting first-team reps, drawing targets, and has an OC/QB combo that seems to like fullbacks.
It’s also worth noting that New York’s new offensive line coach and run game coordinator, Keith Carter, has a background that features a good amount of fullback usage.
Carter hails from a Titans team that gave 5.4 snaps per game to fullbacks over his five years with the team (15th in the league). Prior to Tennessee, Carter spent three years as an assistant offensive line coach and running backs coach in Atlanta, a span during which Falcons fullback Patrick DiMarco ranked second at his position with 957 offensive snaps (19.9 per game) and became a Pro Bowler.
The dilemma is figuring out which roster spot Bawden would be taking. Who would be booted to make room for him?
In my view, Bawden is indirectly competing against the fringe players at New York’s other skill positions: tight end, running back, and wide receiver. If Bawden were to make the team, it feels likely the Jets would elect to go one shy of the traditional total at one of those positions, whether it’s keeping five wide receivers, three tight ends, or three running backs.
One possible victim of Bawden making the roster is seventh-round rookie TE Zack Kuntz. Bawden seems like a much better bet to provide instant impact for the Super Bowl-hungry Jets than Kuntz, whose appeal is based entirely on long-term potential rather than NFL readiness. The Jets could keep Bawden over Kuntz and try to stash Kuntz on the practice squad.
Bawden is significantly more developed than Kuntz as a blocker and also offers plenty of NFL special teams experience. Since Kuntz is a long-term project on offense and will likely not be ready to contribute in that phase, Kuntz will have to prove he can use his uber-athleticism to contribute immediately on special teams if he wants to fend off Bawden. Kuntz hardly played on special teams in college, though, so even in that phase, he is a work in progress.
Perhaps the Jets make a shocking cut at RB to keep Bawden. This feels like a massive longshot, though, as Bawden is much more of a FB/TE hybrid than a FB/RB hybrid – he has never carried the ball in the NFL and had one carry as a college fullback.
Another option is keeping Bawden over one of the many undrafted rookie WRs who are vying for the sixth WR spot that was vacated by the Denzel Mims trade. The Jets have five apparent roster locks at WR but nobody else is guaranteed a spot after that.
Going with only five wide receivers seems risky, but it’s a common move among successful teams who keep a fullback. For instance, in 2022, the 49ers (FB Kyle Juszczyk), Ravens (FB Patrick Ricard), Chiefs (FB Michael Burton), and Dolphins (FB Alec Ingold) each kept five wide receivers on their initial 53-man roster. This allowed all four teams to keep four tight ends and four running backs while still squeezing in the fullback.
Keep an eye on Nick Bawden throughout the rest of this summer. The fullback position may soon be removed from the endangered species list in northern New Jersey.