Leonard Weaver had a great year in 2009. He was terrific as a runner and receiver, and did well enough as a blocker. It looked like the Eagles had the fullback position set for years. That all changed in the 2010 season opener. Weaver suffered a devastating knee injury. He was done for the season, and possibly more.
Weaver didn't just tear ligaments. He suffered nerve damage. Anyone who remembers what safety J.R. Reed went through several years back knows that nerve damage can be near impossible to overcome. We all want Weaver to be able to get healthy and return to the field, but he's got an uphill battle in front of him.
Owen Schmitt stepped in to replace Weaver last year. I wasn't sure what to expect from him since Schmitt hadn't exactly set the world on fire in his two seasons in Seattle. He had 17 touches up there and didn't even average five yards per play. Schmitt had two catches in his first game for us and finished the season with 19 receptions. He averaged 7.2 yards per catch. Almost half of his catches resulted in first downs.
Schmitt didn't come here to be a focal part of the offense. The Eagles just needed him to be an adequate fill-in for Weaver. He definitely accomplished that. Schmitt proved to be a good outlet receiver. He didn't get any carries, but the fullback rarely does in an Andy Reid offense. Weaver was definitely an exception. Schmitt's blocking wasn't great, but was good enough. The Eagles aren't a classic I-formation team that runs isolation play after isolation play. Emmitt Smith needed Darryl Johnston in front of him. That was the Cowboys offense back then. Reid likes to spread out the defense with three and four receiver sets and then run the ball with a single back. The fullback is probably on the field for less than half of a normal game.
Schmitt was a pleasant surprise in 2010, but wasn't so good we could guarantee him the starting fullback spot in 2011. That's why the team spent a seventh round pick on Stanley Havili from USC. While fullback isn't a crucial position, you still want competition so that you can get the best player possible. Havili isn't a project. He should be able to come in and push Schmitt right away.
Havili caught 116 passes at USC, where he was a four-year starter. Schmitt has 63 catches in his NFL and college careers combined. That ought to give you an idea that Havili isn't your typical fullback. He's more than just an outlet receiver. USC designed plays to get the ball to Havili so that he could take advantage of mis-matches with linebackers. I don't think he'll create mis-matches in the NFL, but Havili is a gifted receiver. The Eagles coaches can do some creative things with him in the passing game.
The test for Havili is blocking. He was okay at USC, but the NFL is a whole other story. He's got to show that he can handle pro linebackers. That is a major challenge for rookie fullbacks. The Eagles don't run a lot out of the I-formation, but Havili has to be able to get the job done on those plays when he's supposed to be clearing the way for Shady McCoy. Havili has adequate size at 240 pounds. I think the biggest challenge for him will be embracing the fact he's got to be a better blocker. Havili was a good college fullback, but there aren't 32 good fullbacks in the NFL. That tells you how hard it is to find a guy that can do it all.
Think about the duties of an NFL fullback. His most basic function is lead blocker on isolation plays. That means he runs face first into a linebacker as hard as he can and tries to knock the guy off his spot. This isn't something most sane people want to do, let alone do well. The fullback must be skilled enough to pick up blitzers off the edge or up the middle. There are some plays when he'll need to take on a defensive end. The fullback can't just be a human sledgehammer. He's got to be gifted enough to produce as a runner and receiver when the ball comes his way. This won't be often, but you have to keep defenses honest and that means using the fullback as a weapon here and there. The fullback also must play well on special teams. The star tailback is allowed to rest, but the fullback has to earn his keep by doing dirty work in the kicking game as well as on offense.
Some people have asked about how much better Schmitt could get now that he'll be in year two as an Eagle. I don't see him making a substantial jump. Fullback is one of those positions that doesn't change much from team to team. Schmitt wasn't a standout blocker in Seattle. He wasn't a great blocker here last year. I can't see him suddenly getting a lot better. There is room for him to get better from an overall standpoint, but he'll never be a Pro Bowl type fullback. The guys who show real improvement are either young guys adjusting to the league or players who played elsewhere in college and are adjusting to the position.
It isn't fair to compare Schmitt and Havili directly since we have yet to see if Havili can play at the NFL level. He's got enough size and athletic ability. I really think it comes down to attitude and toughness. Havili faced some tough competition in college, but he's in for a whole other level the first time he goes to block London Fletcher or Brian Urlacher. Those are hardcore, rugged men who will send you flying if you are the least bit hesitant. I'll never forget watching LaVar Arrington try to tackle Brian Mitchell on a kickoff return when Arrington was a rookie. Mitchell, who was 20 pounds lighter, hit Arrington so hard that he was woozy and had to be helped off the field. Mitchell casually jogged off. The play wasn't a big deal to him at all. To put it simply, men hit different than boys. Havili needs to show us if he can handle the physicality of the man's game.
Havili does have one advantage in terms of making the transition to the NFL. He played in a pro style offense in college. That will make life somewhat easier. He understands how to run and pass block out of the I-formation. He knows how to play with a quarterback who is under center most of the game.
I don't think Havili is likely to come in and win the fullback job as a rookie. I think he's got a chance because he is such a talented pass catcher. Still, you can't help but think back to Nate Ilaoa. He was a seventh round pick who came out of Hawaii with the ability to make plays in the passing game. He couldn't block well and really struggled with the adjustment to pro football. I think Havili is a much better prospect than Ilaoa, but he's still got a long way to go before he steals the fullback spot from Schmitt. I'll be happy if we can just have good competition between the two so that someone wins the job instead of getting it by default.
* * * * *
Odd side note...being a fullback for the Eagles isn't necessarily a good thing. The three best fullbacks of the last 15 years were Kevin Turner, Jon Ritchie, and Leonard Weaver. All three had careers shortened by injuries. It really is a tough position. I have ultimate respect for anyone who's able to be a starting fullback in the NFL.