When fullback Anthony Sherman caught a short swing pass from quarterback Alex Smith, tucked it away and sprinted upfield for an eight-yard gain in the Chiefs’ preseason opener at New Orleans, the message was clear.
The role of fullback, a position on the endangered list in this era of multi-receiver offenses, has a significant role in the Chiefs’ game plan.
Some NFL teams don’t even carry fullbacks on their rosters. The position was pretty dormant last season in Kansas City, where rookie Nate Eachus appeared briefly early in the year and Patrick DiMarco started three of the last four games.
But DiMarco never touched the football with the Chiefs, making his biggest impact with the block that sprung Jamaal Charles for an 80-yard touchdown run at Cleveland. Eachus carried five times and caught one pass.
Both Eachus and DiMarco were released by the Chiefs’ new regime, which was looking for multi-dimensional fullbacks who could play in Andy Reid’s West Coast offense.
So the Chiefs overhauled the position by acquiring Sherman from Arizona in a trade for cornerback Javier Arenas, selected Kansas State’s Braden Wilson in the sixth round of the NFL Draft and signed rookie free agent Toben Opurum of Kansas.
While blocking may still be job No. 1 for the Chiefs’ fullback, he has other responsibilities, especially as a ball carrier in short-yardage situations and as a receiver any time he is on the field.
“It’s important that the fullback isn’t just a blocker,” Reid said. “In this offense, it’s important that he’s got to be able to catch the football. He’s got to be able to run with the football. The defense has to consider him more than a glorified offensive lineman. Sherman can do all those things.”
Neither Sherman nor Wilson has extensive experience handling the football. Sherman, who entered the NFL as a fifth-round draft pick out of Connecticut, carried the ball one time for three yards in his two seasons at Arizona and caught 13 passes in 28 games. Wilson, in 51 games at Kansas State, carried 21 times, scoring two touchdowns; and caught 18 passes.
But they’re sure having more fun getting a chance to run with the ball and catch passes with the Chiefs than simply doing the dirty work of blocking on every play.
“The Chiefs didn’t tell me I would touch the ball; they wanted to see what I could offer,” Sherman said. “From there on, I think I’ve done a pretty decent job. Alex has done a great job of finding me in the flat at New Orleans, it was one of those plays where no one came to my protection (area), so I got out on a swing route and Alex found me.
“No one was open, so he just found me and dumped it off, and we made something happen.”
Wilson said he didn’t mind his role as a blocker at Kansas State, “because we were winning. Now that I’ve seen how the fullback is used in this offense, I’m enjoying it. You’re involved in every aspect now everything but throwing the ball.”
While Sherman is a compactly built 5 feet 10 and 242 pounds, Wilson is 6-4 and 256 pounds. So he’s not only lining up in the backfield in running downs but the Chiefs are flexing Wilson out, trying to get mismatches against shorter linebackers or smaller defensive backs.
“One of the beauties of this offense is we use a lot of different personnel (groups),” quarterbacks coach Matt Nagy said. “Several of our personnels is using the fullback. We have some fullbacks who are able to go out in space and run routes, and we have some who can make a nice block on a middle linebacker.
“We try to mix it up and keep defenses on their heels. When you can keep a defense in their base defense and keep them out of their nickel and sub packages, it puts a stress on them.”
Sherman isn’t too worried about the fullback position becoming extinct.
“Both teams in the Super Bowl last year used a fullback,” he said of the Baltimore Ravens’ Vonta Leach and San Francisco’s Bruce Miller. “There are a bunch of fullbacks out there who do a great job for their teams. They’re all trying to get their running back to 1,000 yards.”
Sherman helped pave the way for Arizona’s Beanie Wells to rush for 1,047 yards, including a franchise-single-game record 228 yards in a game against St. Louis in 2011.
“That’s what I try to do ” Sherman said. “I get excited when Jamaal (Charles) makes a nice run. “I would rather have Jamaal get 2,000 yards than me catch a single pass. That’s what I enjoy.”