Fullbacks are a dying breed in the NFL. Can Soma Vainuku convince teams that he is worth a roster spot in this day and age?
We now live in an age when many teams don’t carry a fullback on their roster anymore. There seem to be similarly few fullbacks that come from the college ranks, which means there’s scarcity for new talent at the position.
In order for Vainuku to make it onto an NFL roster, he’ll have to not only prove to teams that he can play at an NFL level, but also that his blocking and special teams contributions make having a fullback on the team worth it.
Physically, his combine measurements stack up well against the top fullbacks in the game today. Vainuku measured in at 5-foot-11 and 246 pound, which compares favorably to 2015 All Pro fullback Mike Tolbert, listed at 5-foot-9 and 250 pounds.
Outside of run blocking, Mike Tolbert possesses a great ability that Vainuku might not: pass catching. This year, Tolbert had 18 receptions for 154 yards and 3 touchdowns. Take a look at this clip to see how useful a fullback can be near the goal line.
Vainuku has not caught a pass in the past two seasons, and considering the importance of the fullback as a receiver, this concern could cost him consideration as an undrafted free agent with some teams. Vainuku does have one touchdown grab that you may remember from the opening drive on the 2013 game against Stanford.
Both this play and Tolbert’s come from the same play concept; show a formation that implies a run up the middle or off tackle to get the defense to fall for the play action fake. The running back stays in to block to give time for the quarterback to throw the ball to the fullback.
Vainuku was able to get open by USC abusing the man coverage on the backside of Stanford’s run blitz. The Trojans keep their tight end and running back in to pass block against the blitz, while Nelson Agholar runs a shallow drag route that brings his defender towards the middle of the field. By doing this, Agholar also gets in the way of the defender trying to tackle Vainuku, a tactic known as a “pick play.”
Subsequently, Vainuku finds himself wide open for the touchdown grab. He adjusts his body positioning to make the grab, a good ability to have, but the fact that he had to do it brings into question whether Kessler threw the ball too far behind him, or Vainuku ran his route too shallow. Because he has so few grabs on tape, these situations become even more important in the player evaluations that general managers make.
As far as run blocking is concerned, teams have not seen much recent tape either due to Vainuku seeing less and less of the field with the arrival of Steve Sarkisian’s offensive scheme and the Jahleel Pinner subsequently winning the starting fullback job. Some teams may be put off by the fact he could not earn more playing time, but overall it brings up more questions about how he blocks going into the NFL today.
Despite all of this, Soma continued to be a fan favorite and great special teams player, but in the NFL, there are rarely spots open for someone who just plays special teams. He will likely go undrafted and get picked up for training camp by a team that is looking for competition at the fullback position.
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Alternatively, he could end up at a team with a new coaching staff that wants a roster overhaul. The Philadelphia Eagles could be a likely team to sign him, as they do not have a fullback on their current roster. First year head coach Doug Pederson was the offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs the past three seasons, who have a fantastic running game featuring one of the NFL’s best fullbacks, Anthony Sherman.
Should Pederson want to bring a similar offensive scheme to Philadelphia, he would bring in multiple fullbacks for training camp, possibly including Vainuku.
In my opinion, a situation with no clear starter like this would be his best shot in the NFL. If he can prove that his run blocking and receiving are at a pro level, he may have a chance at making a roster, or at least a practice squad.
Preliminary Prediction: Soma Vainuku is signed as an undrafted free agent by the Philadelphia Eagles.