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Pro Bowl 2015 Voting: A Guide to Fullbacks and Tight Ends

The Pro Bowl is an increasingly flawed voting process, especially as we figure out Pro Bowl 2015 voting. Already a popularity contest at the most obscure positions, changes in voting procedure have turned it less into a measure of merit and more a determinant of relative market strength. Regardless, we strive our best to create a good ballot—whether that means the best players or our hometown players. Part of an ongoing series to guide your Pro Bowl ballot, we continue with wide receivers and tight ends. For quarterbacks and running backs, click here. For receivers, click here.

Fullbacks (2 Votes)

As you’ll see below when we talk about tight ends, I’m of the belief that every single role deserves recognition when it comes to Pro Bowl voting. That may create problems on the defensive side of the ball when the NFL badly mishandles parsing defensive ends and linebackers, but it does mean we get to appreciate a role that somehow gets even less love than the offensive linemen: fullbacks.

That doesn’t mean choosing the fullback with the most receiving yards or rushing capability—creating rushing lanes is just as critical as being able to run the ball, and very few if any modern running backs can create on their own without the help of a fullback. It would be easy to choose short-yardage options like Mike Tolbert and John Kuhn (and make no mistake, there’s no issue with choosing one or both in a typical year), but it’s at least worth giving due consideration to other players.

In a narrow field of fullbacks, it would be difficult to give the nod to those who haven’t been on the field as much, even if their on-field play is impactful. Despite good years from Henry Hynoski, John Conner, Darrel Young and Jerome Felton, impacting plays often should be a central requirement of any postseason honor.

Worth consideration for their yardage capabilities are Kyle Juszcyck,  Marcel Reece, John Kuhn, Bruce Miller and Mike Tolbert. To go with that, the blocking capability of Cincinnati’s Ryan Hewitt, Anthony Sherman and Jed Collins are worth looking into. Unlike other years, there are very few fullbacks that have been able to produce with the ball in their hand while also paving the way for other runners, so easy “dual-threat” options can’t be the vote.

In terms of useful statistics for fullback blocking—outside of PFF scores, which would give Anthony Sherman a big edge—are functionally plus-minus grades for running backs with a fullback on the field or off the field. It’s not quite fair; some running backs are simply better running with fullbacks and some are not, but it provides some proxy. After correcting for down-and-distance (very important—one might get fewer yards with a fullback in because he comes in goal line situations) the top team in consideration in yards per carry differential (from two running backs on the field to one) is Cincinnati, followed closely by Kansas City. If we weren’t setting a high standard for total snaps, Minnesota’s Jerome Felton would take the top nod in this statistic, particularly impressive given the number of running backs they’ve had to trot out.

For what it’s worth, it seems as if Sherman is the better of the two blockers on film, and so if it comes down to choosing one effective blocking fullback and one effective yardage back, he may deserve the edge—especially because Sherman also ekes out 50 additional yards in the passing game and a touchdown.

Between the backs that can get yardage, Reece, Tolbert and Juszcyck are the only ones with over 100 yards from scrimmage, with the Raider and Raven also netting a touchdown. Of those three, Juszcyck not only has the most snaps, but is the only one who isn’t at issue when blocking on the run, usually pushing defenders downfield and executing his backside duties in Kubiak’s zone-running scheme very well. Reece is a liability as a blocker, and a big one at that—adding some of the lowest yardage in the NFL when on the field, and blowing up plays by bringing an extra player in the box without the ability to block him.

Mike Tolbert doesn’t block often enough (32 run-blocking snaps against 249 from Juszcyck or 84 from Reece) to be considered in run blocking, but because Tolbert hasn’t added much elsewhere this year, he can’t really compete at the fullback position. John Kuhn has a lot of popularity in Green Bay, but though he’s been a better blocker this year than most, it’s still a marginal gain for the offense if that. His yardage total this year (80) does not make up for that.

Votes: Anthony Sherman, Kyle Juszcyck

Justifiable Homer Picks: Ryan Hewitt, Jerome Felton, Marcel Reece


Tight Ends (4 Votes)

Split between blockers and receivers, tight ends have two distinct set of responsibilities that make them difficult to compare. More often than not we give more credit to receiving capability than we do blocking, even though a receiver who’s not open is far less dangerous to a play than a blocker not blocking. That isn’t to say directly moving the ball is bad, but NFL teams ask tight ends to block for a reason, so it makes sense to evaluate both ends of the spectrum.

With only four votes for tight ends (despite the fact that there are more tight ends taking snaps on a team than quarterbacks… who get six votes), we’ll have to be extremely stingy in terms of who is not only eligible to receive votes but what they can receive votes for. In terms of raw yardage, the top four tight ends are Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, Martellus Bennett and Delanie Walker, with Jimmy Graham and Travis Kelce following closely behind.

It may be important to consider red zone threats as well, and Dwayne Allen joins Antonio Gates and Julio Thomas in that list of receiving threats when the field is compressed.

Evaluating blocking can always be difficult. Unlike with fullbacks, with-or-without you statistics can be useless for a number of reasons:

  1. A tight end will almost always be on the field (so personnel groupings won’t help)
  2. Unlike fullbacks lined up in the backfield, running backs won’t often run to the tight end
  3. Tight ends can be split wide on runs, especially for teams employing spread concepts
  4. A tight end losing a block on the edge will lead to play failure significantly less often than a fullback losing a block in the hole

Further, play direction results won’t tell us much either. It could simply be the case that the right or left tackle combo-blocks with the tight end very well, or that there are different tight ends contributing to play direction statistics. Beyond that, many running backs can do better with running to the edge than between the tackles, which isn’t an appropriate referendum on ability.

Instead, checking out tight ends in the discussion already while looking at other tight ends reputed to be good at blocking can help when looking back at the film. In this case, we can add Matt Spaeth, Heath Miller, Vernon Davis, Jason Witten and Rhett Ellison to the list.

So, between Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, Martellus Bennett, Delanie Walker, Jimmy Graham, Travis Kelce, Matt Spaeth, Heath Miller, Vernon Davis, Jason Witten and Rhett Ellison, who deserves to be eliminated first? If we look at players who specialize in either running or blocking, we can get rid of the worst specialists first. After all, if a player is making money just by blocking and happens to be only above average at that, they don’t deserve Pro Bowl consideration.

Vernon Davis deserves to go first, even though in most years, his receiving ability would be able to make up for any deficiencies he would have as a blocker (and in previous years, he didn’t often have those deficiencies). This year, he’s not only deficient as a blocker, he’s awful at it. Plays like the following are closer to the norm than they aren’t:

Vernon Davis Run Block

Given that the doesn’t have many receiving yards to his name (and an obscene drop rate), as well as difficulties getting open against man coverage, he can’t be justifiably voted to the Pro Bowl.

Of the receiving specialists, Jimmy Graham has clearly been having a down year. Having not even cracked 700 yards this season, he ranks low on the list of receiving-only tight ends, and behind some multipurpose tight ends as well. Though Graham has improved by leaps and bounds as a blocker, he still isn’t a good one and therefore has nothing to add to his resume as a Pro Bowl tight end.

We can further eliminate Matt Spaeth for not having a significant enough snap count to have had a meaningful impact on the game, leaving us with ten tight ends, and four votes to distribute among them. Of those ten, five have enough receiving capability alone this year that they may warrant inclusion: Julius Thomas, Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, Martellus Bennett and Travis Kelce. Of those five, only three have both consistent production and game-to-game impact—Gronkowski, Bennett and Olsen.

Of the blockers, only Rhett Ellison should be excluded on the basis of game-to-game consistency. that leaves us with Delanie Walker, Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, Greg Olsen, Delanie Walker, Dwayne Allen and Jason Witten. Heath Miller, the lone tight end left that falls into neither category is good at both blocking and receiving, but it not good enough at either to be included in either sub-list and isn’t particularly close in those categories to warrant a Pro Bowl vote on the basis of being well-rounded alone.

Are any of these players bad at the thing they’re not good at? Dwayne Allen has vanishingly few yards, but a good number of touchdowns (seven). He’s also consistent when targeted, but has a low yards per route run. Greg Olsen is a great receiving option on a corps that doesn’t have any, but he’s a mediocre blocking option, at best. Between those two, I think Olsen is the only one who doesn’t make up for what he’s bad at to allow what he’s good at to take over.

Dwayne Allen, Jason Witten and Delanie Walker far and away have been the best blocking tight ends this year, and they’ve been doing it on a game-by-game basis, allowing their teams confidence in how they’re used. They do more than create receiving mismatches, they enable serious flexibility at the line of scrimmage and should confuse defenses when they’re on the field, because personnel packages will always be wrong—a nickel defense will get run at and a base defense will get thrown upon. Jason Witten is identically good at blocking as Dwayne Allen, though has more receiving yards (and fewer touchdowns). Between the two, I prefer Witten because of his high usage rate, but that’s a matter of your opinion.

Rob Gronkowski is so obscenely good at catching the ball—better than Pro Bowl receivers—that it wouldn’t matter if he was bad at blocking. He’s not, so that’s a nice bonus, but his ability to match up against a defense makes him one of the single best offensive players in football, in the conversation with Aaron Rodgers and Calvin Johnson. He’s an automatic vote, especially because he could be abysmal at blocking and still be considered. That he’s one of the better blockers at the position is just an added boon.

How do you decide between Martellus Bennett and Dwayne Allen? Bennett has twice as many yards while Allen has more touchdowns, but Allen has a higher drop rate, a lower usage rate and doesn’t create as many yards on his own as Bennett does (Bennett leads all receivers and tight ends in missed tackles forced, and is only behind one running back in the statistic). Bennett is a better blocker than Allen is a receiver, and I’m not sure that’s the case the other way around—just from a film and technique perspective.  That Bennett has 77 receptions to Allen’s 27 receptions, without an equally large gap as receivers makes me lean towards Bennett.

Votes: Rob Gronkowski, Delanie Walker, Jason Witten, Martellus Bennett

Justifiable Homer Picks: Dwayne Allen, Julius Thomas, Travis Kelce, Rhett Ellison, Heath Miller, Greg Olsen

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