Why did the Lions draft a fullback

The Lions offense features through-the-air weapons such as Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and Eric Ebron. The team also has running backs who can catch the ball and a big-armed quarterback to help take advantage. So, how does a fullback fit into the mix?

The Detroit Lions surprised some with their fifth-round selection of Michael Burton, a fullback out of Rutgers, earlier this month.

The Detroit Lions offense is littered with athletes and the type of weaponry that should put vertical pressure on a defense, so why invest a fifth-round pick on a fullback. Let’s examine this a bit more.

Why the pick was the right one

The Lions are committed to improving last year’s sporadic, if not ineffective, run game. If that wasn’t apparent before the draft, looking at the Lions’ first two selections of Laken Tomlinson and Ameer Abdullah makes it obvious. Burton is further evidence of that.

“These players will help us run the ball more effectively. They are going to help us be a better offense too,” said offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. “The guard (Tomlinson) is going run block well, but he’s also going to pass block well. The running back (Abdullah) is going to run the ball well, but is a really good receiver and will add a lot for our special teams. The fullback (Burton) is obviously more of a run game thing. We definitely want to and need to run the ball better than we did last year and these guys will help us do that.”

Burton has a solid combination of size and athleticism for the position and is expected to be a strong lead blocker on offense. He plays smart, takes good angles to would-be tacklers and has the feet to move well in space. In addition to his abilities as a leader blocker, he’s a versatile player who can contribute as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.

These characteristics were all on display when Rutgers participated in the Quick Lane Bowl which occurred a few months ago at Ford Field – an event Lions general manager Martin Mayhew attended.

“(Mayhew) saw a guy that played a lot in that bowl game,” said Lombardi. “A lot of times fullbacks are on and off the field. Well, this guy was used in a lot of different roles, so it wasn’t just go run the lead play and then come off whenever we want to do something a little more athletic. So, you saw a kid that was versatile and had good athleticism and could run routes and catch the ball and block and be a real effective player.”

The Lions also have a bit of insider knowledge on Burton, who also has strong charter and leadership skills, as Lions assistant head coach and tight ends coach Ron Prince was offensive coordinator at Rutgers during some of Burton’s collegiate career.

Why this wasn’t the right pick

This debate would usually start with whether or not there is value in the fullback position in today’s pass-happy NFL.

This argument would be more appropriate if one would want to debate some of the philosophies of the Lions offense, but – since the Lions offense does value the position – the decision to draft a fullback makes sense.

Of course, using a fifth-round pick on a fullback that has lead-blocking skills but isn’t a known commodity as a runner, is at the center of evaluating the value of this pick.

Even the Lions sound non-committal on Burton's ability to carry the ball.

“Based on the college tape that we saw it would be hard to evaluate (Burton as a runner),” said Lombardi. “We know that he’s got good hands and can be useful in the passing game.”

So, the real question to ask when examining this pick is whether or not the Lions overpaid for a player who has little to offer on short-yardage with the ball in his hands.

Conclusion

Burton is a compelling pick because he could make a difference in the run game and the Lions could use his athleticism to make the short passing game and screen game better by either throwing him the ball or allowing him to block in space.

He also brings strong special teams ability to the fold and has the potential to contribute to what already is a healthy locker-room environment.

Still, could the Lions have gotten all those things through an undrafted free agent? Did they potentially overpay for a solid-charterer guy that one of their offensive assistance spoke fondly of?

Like all picks, the true answer will come within the next 2-3 years.


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