GREEN BAY – Danny Vitale has played halfback, fullback, wingback, tight end and even a little slot receiver between his four years at Northwestern and three seasons in the NFL.
It’s perhaps that past positional plasticity that’s made the fourth-year veteran a natural fit in the offense of Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur.
LaFleur has been saying since February the fullback position has a home in his scheme and the first two weeks of training camp have further backed his offseason claims.
A position that was completely abandoned 11 months ago now to be appears alive and well in the Packers’ offense, with Vitale and Malcolm Johnson carrying the torch this summer.
The position has evolved in some sense. The fullbacks currently manning NFL 53-man rosters are no longer simply plodding, 255-pounders who play 10 snaps a game in obvious run situations. The best are all-around athletes who can run, block, catch passes and be trusted in third-down pass protection.
“I just think we’re one of the few offenses that will utilize the fullback outside of those short-yardage, goal-line situations,” LaFleur said. “I just think it gives you some flexibility from an offensive perspective in terms of trying to take advantage of whatever the defense is presenting you with. It just gives you more options.”
Vitale, specifically, has been a fixture on offense throughout the offseason program and first nine practices of training camp. The 6-foot, 239-pound fullback has even stepped in as a third-down back in two-minute periods, with Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones currently nursing hamstring injuries.
The truth is Vitale has always been more “athlete” than “fullback.” Labeled a “Superback” at Northwestern, Vitale ran a marathon motioning across the offensive front on his way to 135 catches for 1,427 yards and 11 touchdowns in four seasons with the Wildcats.
It really wasn’t until his two-year stint in Cleveland that Vitale was asked to play more traditional hand-in-the-dirt fullback. Entering his second year in Green Bay, he feels his skills mesh perfectly with what LaFleur’s scheme emphasizes.
Vitale already has hauled in several passes from quarterback Aaron Rodgers this camp, including at least one downfield reception in each of the last three practices.
“That’s definitely my more natural skill set being able to obviously catch the ball and run routes, be an athlete,” Vitale said. “That part of it has always been easy to me. When I got into the league, I had to learn to be that hand-in-the-dirt fullback and go smash faces. Now, it’s nice that I know how to do that but I also get to go back to that secondhand nature of my game.”
Only a handful of teams currently feature the fullback, but that small fraternity has produced several of the league’s most innovative and unpredictable offenses.
San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan, a close friend and former colleague of LaFleur, has set the blueprint for how effective a fullback can be in today’s NFL, with three-time Pro Bowler Kyle Juszczyk, who played more than 60 percent of the 49ers’ offensive snaps in 2018.
Four other offenses – New England (James Develin), New Orleans (Zach Line), Atlanta (Ricky Ortiz) and the Los Angeles Chargers (Derek Watt) – also were among the league’s top units last season, utilizing schemes favorable to the fullback.
Based on his experience, LaFleur believes Vitale could bring a similar element to his offense, which utilizes an array of motion and two-back alignments to keep defenses constantly guessing.
“He can catch balls out of the backfield and that’s one of the things that we certainly look at when we’re trying to find a fullback,” LaFleur said. “Are they able to catch a check-down or can you use a guy similar to how Juszczyk’s used in San Francisco? And that’s what I thought about Danny.”
The Packers could have added a fullback through free agency or the NFL Draft but felt confident enough in what they’d seen from Vitale and Johnson, who finished last year on the practice squad.
Coincidentally, the two fullbacks crossed before as sixth-round picks in Cleveland, with Johnson being drafted a year before Vitale in 2015. After his release from the Browns in 2016, Johnson resurfaced last year in San Francisco with Shanahan.
Vitale and Johnson have built a strong rapport based upon mutual respect during their two NFL stints together. While it could be seen as two players competing for the same job at a scarce position, Vitale doesn’t view it like that.
“Our mindset is we’re going to be the two best fullbacks in the NFL,” Vitale said. “If one of us is going to end up somewhere else, then we’re going to be the two best no matter what. It’s definitely a relationship where we’re trying to make each other better and not bring each other down.”
It’s safe to say Vitale has been a popular addition to the offense so far. Rodgers and the coaching staff have had fun joking with Vitale over his muscular build and relentless approach to the weight room during his short time in Green Bay.
With Thursday’s preseason opener against Houston on the horizon, Vitale soon will have the opportunity to prove in an in-game setting he can be the fullback the Packers were missing.
“I’ll tell you, the muscle man has done a nice job, hasn’t he?” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “I think right now it’s just kind of experimenting, seeing what he can do, what we can work with and then incorporating it more and more.
“A lot of the time you get base defense when you put a fullback out there, so that’s some things that you like to attack. If you have a threat like that, you’ve got a chance to utilize that.”