The Ravens considered Kyle Juszczyk far more than just a fullback. He handled lead-blocking duties, but he also was used at times more like a tight end or a wide receiver. On third downs, he was often the lone back in the backfield and during one of the Ravens’ best drives of the 2016 season, Juszczyk became the primary ball carrier and looked the part. He also was one of the team’s core special team players.
Last season, Juszczyk played 41 percent of the Ravens’ offensive snaps – far more than any other NFL fullback – and also was on the field for 70 percent of the team’s special teams plays. His versatility and production – he caught 97 balls for 769 yards and five touchdowns over the past three seasons and had a rushing score to finalize the late touchdown drive against the Pittsburgh Steelers last Christmas – earned him a four-year, $21 million free-agent contract from the San Francisco 49ers in March.
The Ravens were interested in re-signing the former Harvard standout, but they were never competitive with the 49ers from a financial standpoint. Given Juszczyk’s myriad roles, it wasn’t surprising that Ravens coach John Harbaugh said the team might use a few players to replace the fullback.
“That position can be filled by football players,” Harbaugh said last Thursday after the Ravens’ organized team activity workout. “Whether you call a guy a fullback, whether you call him a tight end, whether you call him a wide receiver getting in there and doing some things, if we have a fullback that is one of the best 53 that plays the fullback in terms of the roster spot, we will do it that way.”
In other words, the Ravens are still likely to use a lead blocker in the backfield on occasion, but that player will have other roles as well. At Thursday’s OTA, the team had both Lorenzo Taliaferro and Ricky Ortiz working on blocking drills.
When not injured during his first three NFL seasons, Taliaferro has been a tailback. However, Terrance West, Kenneth Dixon, Danny Woodhead and perhaps Buck Allen are ahead of him on the depth chart at that spot, meaning Taliaferro’s best chance to make the roster could hinge on his role and skill set expanding.
Ortiz is an undrafted rookie who played fullback, tight end, linebacker and a lot of special teams at Oregon State. If he is going to make the Ravens, his role would almost certainly include fullback duties.
“The job – the lead blocking and the cutoff blocking - Kyle was very versatile. He ran the routes, he did a lot of things that tight ends would do, even that wide receivers would do. It is going to have to be someone as versatile as Kyle, that kind of a player,” Harbaugh said when asked about potential replacements for Juszczyk, a Pro Bowl selection last season. “I do believe we have that person on the roster. Maybe it is a combination of guys, and we will see. But this Ortiz – young guy – he is doing a good job. We will see how he does, too.”
Some around the team believe that Taliaferro, who is 6 feet and 225 pounds, could make the transition into the fullback/No. 3 running back spot, and have the sort of role that Le’Ron McClain once occupied for the Ravens. Woodhead, who tied for the lead among NFL running backs in receptions two years ago and has plenty of experience in blitz pickup, figures to assume some of Juszczyk’s responsibilities.
And the Ravens could also use one of their six tight ends as a lead blocker in certain sets. Nick Boyle, who is a very physical blocker and has underrated hands, would seemingly be an ideal candidate.
Last year, about a third of the teams in the NFL didn’t even have a fullback on their roster. Only nine teams had a fullback on the field for more than 20 percent of their offensive plays.
With Juszczyk gone, the Ravens could join that list. It won’t mean that they won’t use a fullback. It just means that their fullback might be a tailback, a tight end or a wide receiver.