After the Detroit Lions waived Michael Burton on Tuesday and replaced his spot on the roster with Matt Asiata, the fullback position was on life support. On Wednesday, head coach Jim Caldwell took the podium in front of reporters and finished the job, killing any hope of the Lions using a fullback in 2017.
“Early on, when we first came here, obviously, we were a little more of a fullback oriented unit,” Caldwell said. “So now we’ve changed a little bit in that regard.”
“A little bit” is an understatement. The Lions stopped using Burton last year completely, placing him on the inactive gameday list for the final two games of the season, including Detroit’s Wild Card playoff game against the Seahawks. In his final seven games on the Lions roster, Burton played a total of just eight snaps.
But there was still some hope that the fullback position would live on with Asiata, who has had some limited experience at the position with the Vikings. Caldwell quickly shot that down on Wednesday. When asked if Asiata will play that role in any fashion, Caldwell quickly replied, “No.” He went on to explain why.
“The reason why Burton is no longer here is because that position, as you call it—slotted as such—a fullback, is not a part of how we function. We find a way to get it done with other positions—tight end and things of that nature.”
This offseason, the Lions went out and grabbed two tight ends that could play a key role in 2017. First, Detroit signed Darren Fells in free agency. Fells is best when he’s blocking, and even ranked third in pass protection among all tight ends in 2016, per Pro Football Focus. Later, the Lions added Michael Roberts in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Roberts is more of a receiving threat, but he has the physical build of a tight end that could block. Based on Caldwell’s comments, it appears we can expect a significant role out of Fells, Detroit’s current best blocking tight end.
The biggest concern in losing a fullback is how it will affect the Lions’ running game. In 2016, Detroit ranked in the bottom six in nearly every rushing category. The Lions made it clear this offseason that they believed their backs weren’t the problem. Outside of signing UDFA Tion Green and now Asiata, the Lions did not add any serious competition to their backfield. Instead, they focused primarily on the offensive line, where the additions of T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner on the right side should allow for some improvement.
Whether that is enough to pull the Lions running game out of the basement has yet to be seen. But whatever Detroit’s plan is for 2017, it appears fullback will not be part of the equation.