Fullback isn’t exactly the most exciting position in today’s NFL. For most teams, it’s a role that is being not-so-slowly phased out of the gameplan. Many teams are more focused on spreading out the offense and getting smaller and faster.
But the Detroit Lions don’t appear to be one of those teams. While the team didn’t shy away from throwing the ball deep last year, they also showed a newfound commitment to the running game. And given that the Lions invested even more in the run game this offseason, adding maulers to the offensive line and another new running back, the fullback position could be alive and well for the 2020 Lions.
The question, simply, is who will be that guy? The Lions drafted Nick Bawden two years ago, but he hasn’t established himself as a key player on offense yet. Will the Lions stay the course with him or will they find a different player to take on that role?
Let’s take a closer look at Nick Bawden.
Expectations heading into 2019
Having his rookie year taken away from him thanks to an ACL injury, it wasn’t clear what expectations were for Bawden in Year 2. However, he was basically running unopposed for the starting fullback job and that much was clear when he was taking reps as the first-string fullback as soon as training camp opened up.
Though he was a seventh-round pick in 2018, Bawden was coming into the league with a fairly solid reputation as an established fullback from his days at San Diego State. New offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell never shied away from using a fullback in his offense, so the opportunity was there for Bawden to have a meaningful season in 2019.
Actual role in 2019
2019 stats: 10 games (2 starts): 4 catches, 17 yards
PFF grade: 46.5 (Did not qualify for ranking)
It wasn’t a pretty NFL debut for Bawden in 2020. Though his pass blocking was actually quite good (87.1 grade from PFF), his run blocking was a huge liability for Detroit (41.4 grade). Considering he was asked far more often to help out in the running game, that’s a big problem for the Lions fullback.
The good news is that Bawden was an active and solid contributor in all four phases of special teams (both return and coverage on kick and punt teams).
Bawden’s season ended in Week 11 when he suffered a knee injury. Rookie tight end Isaac Nauta replaced him and had his own struggles at the position, which he split with some time at tight end.
Outlook for 2020
Contract status: Signed through 2021
At this point, I would refrain from calling Bawden a roster lock. Though I don’t consider undrafted rookie Luke Sellers to necessarily be a legitimate threat to Bawden, the fullback position may not require a roster spot alone.
Nauta gives the team a little more versatility, given he can play the tight end position as well. Head coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn both preach versatility as a huge need for every player on the roster. And if you can’t provide versatility, then you better do one hell of a job at the one thing you do do.
As of right now, Bawden isn’t that guy. You can forgive a player like him for a rough season in 2019, however. He was coming off an extremely serious injury. It was essentially his “rookie” season, and he had to learn an entirely new offense from the year prior.
With a solid training camp and continued use on special teams, Bawden could certainly lock up a roster spot by the team cuts come around. However, it’s important to remember just how crowded the backfield is right now. Say, if Kerryon Johnson, D’Andre Swift, Bo Scarbrough, Ty Johnson and Jason Huntley all make the team, is it really good roster construction to keep a sixth back who doesn’t provide much other than a fullback who will get 10-15 offensive snaps a game? For comparison’s sake, the Lions initially kept just four backs last year, including Bawden—though they quickly added a fifth in J.D. McKissic.
Also affecting Bawden’s roster odds is Detroit’s situation at tight end. The Lions did not add any help through free agency or the draft meaning Nauta is nearly a roster lock. If Detroit was content with how Nauta played at fullback at the end of 2019, they could theoretically save a roster spot by having him play double duty and letting Bawden go.
At this point, the Bawden’s job is still very much up for grabs, and the preseason will likely decide his fate in Detroit.