When the New England Patriots spent big on tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith this past offseason, there was speculation a longtime pillar of their offense could become obsolete.
If the Patriots planned to morph back into a team that relies heavily on two-tight end sets, would they really need to continue rostering a fullback?
With the season halfway done, the answer so far has been a resounding “yes.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the arrivals of Henry and Smith haven’t turned the Patriots into 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) devotees. In fact, New England ranks in the bottom half of the NFL in 12 usage entering Week 10, utilizing that package on just 20% percent of their offensive snaps (18th-most).
You won’t find a bigger fan of that approach than Jakob Johnson.
Viewed as a potential cutdown casualty this summer, the German fullback instead has continued to play a significant role in the Patriots’ offense, serving as a bruising lead blocker for Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and J.J. Taylor. Johnson has played at least 25% offensive snaps in each of New England’s last six games.
“Everybody always says that the fullback is going extinct, but somehow, they keep sticking around,” Johnson said Thursday. “And a bunch of teams that have a lot of success have fullbacks. I don’t know what that means, but I think we’re not going extinct any time soon.”
The fullback position is not extinct. More than half of the league’s teams (19 of 32) currently have one on their 53-man roster, and a handful have two. But few utilize theirs more than New England does.
According to Sharp Football Stats, the Patriots rank third in 21 personnel usage (2RB, 1TE) this season, trailing only the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens. They’ve been top-five in that category for years, even famously switching linebacker Elandon Roberts to fullback in 2019 so they could, in the words of running backs coach Ivan Fears, “keep the scheme going” after multiple injuries at the position. They’ve also used the sixth-most 22 personnel (2RB, 2TE) through the first nine weeks.
The latter is a shift from last season, when the Patriots almost never utilized multiple tight ends thanks to a dearth of talent at the position. And though they haven’t leaned into 12 personnel to the level many expected, they still have used it far more frequently than they did in 2020 (32nd), 2019 (28th) or 2018 (32nd).
But the fullback remains an important cog in New England’s run-heavy offensive machine, and Johnson, while not as polished as his Pro Bowl predecessor, James Develin, has performed well in that role. The 26-year-old has been on the field for eight of the Patriots’ 11 rushing touchdowns this season.
“Jak’s a great teammate,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said last week. “He’s been super unselfish. I think by nature of playing that position, that’s your nature — being an unselfish guy that really does a lot of things for other people to have success. He’s tough. He’s always prepared. I don’t know anybody who works harder than he does.”
Johnson has come a long way since he first joined the Patriots through the NFL’s International Pathway Program in 2019. Back then, head coach Bill Belichick openly acknowledged that he wouldn’t have signed Johnson had the league not forced him to, saying he “definitely started off as the 91st player on the roster and had a long, long, long way to go.”
“I can’t say that we were excited to have him,” Belichick said in 2019.
He steadily improved, though, and when Develin suffered what proved to be a career-ending neck injury, Johnson became the first International Pathway player to play in a regular-season game. He’s been with the Patriots ever since, appearing in all 16 games last season and each of the first nine this year.
“I remember when we first got him,” McDaniels recalled, “there was certainly a lot of room to grow, just in terms of understanding how to navigate our game and the things that we need a fullback to do, both in the running back, protections, and then certainly you’ve seen him leak out and catch a few passes here and there, too.
“He was really a clean slate, but the best thing about Jak is he’s a worker. He’s an intelligent player. He’s an intelligent guy who will process what you give him and work really hard to be very good at it. He’s one of the great teammates that we have. We have a lot of them, and he’s a great example for others. We’re fortunate to have him on our team.”
This is a big weekend for Johnson. Not only is Sunday’s game between the Patriots and Cleveland Browns — another run-focused team that features a fullback and regularly deploys three tight ends at once — being broadcast in his native Germany, but he’ll also have a family member in attendance for the first time in his NFL career. His cousin is making the trip to Gillette Stadium.
“My family’s very excited,” Johnson said. “My mom still struggles with the rules of football and figuring out where the ball is and figuring out where I line up and stuff, but the rest of my family is really excited.”