The consensus among media outlets is that the Detroit Lions had a solid 2015 draft. But the Lions’ fifth round selection of fullback Michael Burton left many analysts scratching their head. Was drafting a full back in the fifth round the right decision?
The fullback is a dying breed in the NFL. Fewer teams are relying on their skill sets with a philosophical change on spreading the field and creating mismatches.
Despite the league becoming more pass-happy, teams that run the ball well tend to go far in the playoffs. Look no further than the Seattle Seahawks who have made back-to-back Superbowls behind a stellar run game and a top-notch defense.
The Lions have the latter, and think that developing a running game might get them over the hump.
One of the ways to do that is by getting more physical up front. Detroit was able to check that off their to-do list in the first round when they selected Laken Tomlinson 28th overall to pair with Larry Warford and Travis Swanson.
Another way to improve the run game is to find a full back that an offensive coordinator can utilize. The Lions checked that off their list in the fifth round by selecting Michael Burton from Rutgers, a move that left many fans and analysts scratching their head.
“It’s a position that I always like having,” said offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi during during a press conference with detroitlions.com. “Fullbacks, some people call them a dying breed, but they’re tough guys and I know that we’ve had a good history of fullbacks here, so we like his toughness.”
The coaches and front office may like his toughness, but is that really enough to justify drafting a guy that was projected to go undrafted?
“They like my versatility,” Burton said via conference call after being selected. “That’s definitely the No. 1 thing. I was on every special teams throughout my college career. I played on kickoff and kickoff return, on blocked field goal. I’ve been a starter on every team.”
The Lions were looking for a particular skill set in a fullback. Someone they could use like a Swiss army knife, and they think they found that in Burton.
During his career at Rutgers, Burton caught 47 passes for 401 yards and three touchdowns. He was also an excellent blocker in college, a trait that he should have no problem carrying over to the NFL, after adding nearly 20 lbs since the end of the season.
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Essentially the Lions found a player who will start for them at fullback and most, if not all of the special teams units. He will also help to improve the running game, which has been a point of emphasis this offseason. It didn’t hurt that Detroit was extremely familiar with Burton too. Assistant head coach Ron Prince coached Burton during his time at Rutgers which likely helped his case when the Lions were on the clock in round five.
I can’t fault the Lions for targeting a guy who they likely knew more about than any of the other players drafted this offseason (Alex Carter might be in the mix too with his connections to Martin Mayhew). The team filled a position of need with a player who has the versatility to impact the game in a variety of ways.
They also have to be thrilled about the weight he’s added in such a short time–that should put to rest any questions about his blocking capabilities in the NFL. Some thought Burton was “undersized for the position” and “couldn’t lead block for a run heavy team“.
But the question I’ve had all along is whether or not the Lions could have used their fifth round pick elsewhere and still picked up Burton as an undrafted free agent. The Lions could have used their fifth round pick on another defensive tackle to add to the rotation or even a defensive end which is even thinner this season now that George Johnson is in Tampa Bay.
I ended up giving the Lions a D for selecting the Rutgers fullback in the fifth round. This grade was given from a value standpoint and not is not necessarily a reflection of Burton’s talent level. In fairness, I also felt the same way when the Lions took punter Sam Martin in the fifth round– I’m happy to admit I was dead wrong.
If Burton ends up being part of the solution to the running game, I’ll be happy to admit that I was dead wrong for the second time.
Despite how I personally feel about the value of the pick, Detroit obviously did its homework on Burton and should, at the very least, get a starter at full back and special teams, which is why the Lions felt comfortable burning a fifth round pick on a fullback.
If you start going down the list on what you’re team needs in a fullback to be successful on offense, and you get to the bottom with everything checked off, then drafting Burton was the right decision–even if it meant reaching a bit.