EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Jerome Felton heard the rumors and wondered about his place in the Minnesota Vikings offense under new coordinator Norv Turner.
The Cleveland Browns fullback, when Turner was the offensive coordinator there last season, was the 225-pound Chris Ogbonnaya, not exactly the bruising thumper typically lead-blocking in the running game.
"Probably early in the offseason, I was like, ‘Uh, let’s make sure everything’s cool,’" Felton said. "Because you never really know how the fullback’s going to play out because you’re working a lot more in the passing game, 11 personnel. I just told myself I need to come into camp my best just to make them know when I’m on the field that it’s worth keeping me. That was my mindset going into camp and I think I had a really good camp and that got their trust and showed them what type of player I am."
Felton’s uncertainty quickly subsided once he got the chance to be around Turner and the rest of the Vikings coaches. Felton wasn’t concerned when time came for Minnesota to make its final cuts. He had gotten his worrying out of the way early.
Second-year fullback Zach Line was on the opposite end. Felton was the established veteran fullback and had run with the first-team offense throughout training camp and the preseason. Line, undrafted a year earlier, felt good about his showing but hoped his phone wouldn’t be ringing on the Saturday of cuts.
"It’s a tough weekend," Line said. "You’re never comfortable. But I’m happy with where I’m at. I wanted to find a way to stay here because I really like what coach Turner’s offense asks of the fullback. There’s a lot of ways you can be successful. Not just as a lead blocker but being part of the passing game. Not to give too much away, but there’s places to be successful in this offense."
Minnesota kept Felton and Line. While the importance of the fullback fades around the league, the Vikings went heavy at a position nearly phased out in the passing-game centric NFL.
Four teams in the NFL, including Minnesota, have two fullbacks on their roster. Five have no true fullbacks. Minnesota decided the fullback was a big part of its offense and,with two quality options on the roster, didn’t want to let one get away.
"Well, we think they’re both good players," coach Mike Zimmer said. "Fullbacks are hard to find, if something happens. Plus the need in this offense, I think is big. We don’t want to lose good football players if they’re young guys too."
Zimmer said the change in the college game, where many teams have abandoned the fullback, has created the dearth of quality options in the NFL. Professional teams are forced to take tight ends and move them in the backfield or bulk up college running backs. In some cases, teams have moved linebackers to fullback.
Felton was a runner first in college, once rushing for 940 yards and scoring 20 touchdowns in a season. Line was a three-time, 1000-yard rusher for Southern Methodist.
"I just had to figure out how to block," Line said. "I’m so used to using my hands and staying in pass-protection mode. But I think I had to get out of that and thump people a little more. Jerome is a good guy to watch. I watched a lot of his film and how he comes into contact, accelerating through. Definitely a big transition from last year to this year, I’m a lot more comfortable with the run game."
Felton, one of the last true fullbacks, has bucked the trend. At 248 pounds, Felton helped lead Adrian Peterson through many holes on the way to the second-highest single-season rushing total in NFL history in 2012. For his effort, Felton was named to his first Pro Bowl.
"I feel like as long as I do what I need to do and come and be that physical presence, there will be a place for me," Felton said. "With coach Zimmer’s personality, it’s a great fit because he’s old-school, hard-nosed. He wants physical players, and that’s what I am."
Zimmer added: "When you find one, if you have a fullback offense, you need to keep him."
In the season opener on Sunday, Felton played 17 offensive snaps, 29 percent of the team’s 58 plays on offense. Line was out with an ankle injury. Their usage is likely to increase as the season continues, too.
"I think in this league, first of all we know in November and December we’re going to play in cold-weather games, whether it’s here or in Chicago or Green Bay or somewhere else," Turner said in May. "And being able to power run and be able to, in the fourth quarter of a game, control the ball, all those things, that’s a part of the fullback’s job, and we have fullbacks who are good athletes and catch the ball. So, they can be involved in the offense."
In reality, fullbacks have been a part of Turner’s offenses. Lorenzo Neal and Daryl Johnston went to Pro Bowls under Turner. Two-back sets have been a staple as Turner’s offenses have featured league-leading rushers.
Emmitt Smith led the league three times with Turner at the helm and Johnston leading the way. LaDainian Tomlinson had Neal blocking for him in his league-leading seasons. Rob Konrad plowed the way for Ricky Williams to lead the league under Turner.
"You go back and look, I know a lot of people were talking, ‘Oh, is Norv going to use a fullback?’" Felton said. "I think if you do any research you would see that he has in the past and he’s had a team that’s had two fullbacks. Obviously I was a little surprised (at the Vikings keeping two fullbacks), but I was happy all the same. That makes me feel like we’re going to use two the two-back (offense)."