With a new offensive brain trust in place with head coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Jason Michael, the first question is the one I started the preseason positional analysis with: does it make sense to have a separate fullback positional analysis, anyway? As Frank Wycheck asked Michael in one of his radio interviews this week, isn't having a fullback a waste? The early indications from both Whisenhunt and Michael is that having a player who can play the fullback role is a valuable thing to have. The question is whether that player is a fullback per se or a second tight end.
At his hiring presser, having a fullback was one of the questions Whisenhunt got. He noted the fullback can't be just a fullback. When it comes to the fullback or the second or third tight end, that player must be an integral part of special teams because rosters are limited to 53 players (46 active is probably the more important limit). if that player happens to be a fullback, then that's a player who could make the team. If not, then maybe that role in the short yardage and goalline situations where Michael noted in response to Wycheck a fullback was still valuable could be played by a tight end.
Beyond what the coaches said, another way to get an answer is by revealed preference, what Whisenhunt teams have looked like before. And in San Diego last year, the Chargers carried Le'Ron McClain, who was a fullback. He did not necessarily play that much, only 12% of the time on offense, but he had a role. As Whisenhunt specified, he also played special teams. In Arizona the year before, Whisenhunt's Cardinals had two backs on the field 18% of the time (Anthony Sherman was sort of a fullback, but played in some lone setback sets; Reagan Maui'a, before his Lennay Kekua-related fame, also spent time on the team as a pure fullback). Based on that history and what Whisenhunt and Michael have said, it is at least plausible the Titans will carry a pure fullback.
The Titans did use a fullback in 2013, at least some of the time. The two fullbacks on the roster (only one in any given game) combined for 190 snaps, 17.7% playing time. That was more or less between how much San Diego used a fullback and how much Arizona did. Michael in his radio appearance indicted that he anticipated the fullback would play more some weeks than others; that was also true of the 2013 Titans, as almost half the time (7 games) the fullback played fewer than 10 snaps.
The fullback for the first 12 games was Collin Mooney, who won last year's training camp competition. He played 135 snaps (13% total, 17% in the games he was active), ranging from a high of 28 in Week 9 against the Rams as the Titans kept the ball on the ground to only one against the Seahawks in Week 6 or at home against the Colts in Week 11. He was injured in the rematch with Indianapolis in Week 13 and went on injured reserve. When he played, he blocked. He was not permitted to carry the ball, though he did have 6 catches (on 7 targets) for 32 yards. He also played special teams, where he had 4 tackles (3 solo). He is under contract for 2014 at a modest base salary of $495,000. He frustrated me at times, but I thought he performed reasonably well. With a new coaching staff, it's hard to say for sure what they're looking for at such a marginal position, but he should have a shot to stick around.
The man Mooney defeated in last year's training camp competition was Quinn Johnson, who ended up getting a second act with the team when Mooney suffered that torn hamstring that eventually required offseason surgery. I've never tried to hide my lack of affection for QJ's game, especially his work on zone runs. He played 55 snaps in the final four games, or 20% of the time in those games and 5% of the total season snaps. He did not carry the ball and was thrown one pass in four games, an incompletion against the Cardinals. Like Mooney, he is under contract for 2014, albeit at a reported salary of $730,000. I never understood how he was in the NFL in the first place and therefore assumed that whatever hidden quality kept him around would keep him around forever. Since Mooney won that competition, there were apparently limits to that. Now? Who knows if Whisenhunt and Michael will have the same level of affection for him.
The other names that may figure into this mix are Taylor Thompson and Delanie Walker, but I will talk about them when I talk about the tight ends.
I lean in favor of the Titans keeping a fullback. If that fullback comes from a player on the Titans right now, then I believe Collin Mooney is, will, and should be the favorite.
But, frankly, this is the third positional analysis I've written and the third with a fair amount of uncertainty. Whisenhunt and Michael's statements and Whisenhunt's past history support the idea of keeping a separate fullback. As I listened to them and thought about it, though, I kept thinking "Taylor Thompson, Taylor Thompson, Taylor Thompson," a fullback who is an effective player and can play in-line, something Whisenhunt noted was a play (and Dennis Johnson, the current Steelers fullback, is in that mold). If neither Mooney nor Johnson fits the mold of what specifically Whisenhunt and Michael are looking for, then they could absolutely go into the free agent or undrafted rookie class for a player who more closely fits their idea of what a fullback should be.