Why Bears Fullback Evan Rodriguez Is an Emerging Star in Chicago
Rodriguez is a unique player who should have a unique role, unlike what the Bears gave him last season.
He played tight end and caught 69 passes for 871 yards and seven touchdowns at Temple. Excitement for the rookie grew after a good showing in training camp in which he reportedly put on a "clinic against the team's defense with clutch grabs, more precise routes and a display of athleticism", according to Michael C. Wright of ESPN Chicago.
Yet, when the regular season began, Rodriguez was a forgotten man.
The role general manager Phil Emery saw for him after the draft wasn't one he ended up playing.
"Right role, right fit for the player and team; we see Evan as a combination of a fullback and an F tight end (primarily a receiving tight end). As we analyzed our team needs, we really felt that we had a defined need with the system changes that coach Tice will bring in terms of having a vertical tight end, somebody that could challenge the inside of the defensive structure of our opponent,” Emery said.
Despite the Bears' struggles at the tight end position and their desperate need for someone other than Brandon Marshall to catch passes, Rodriguez was used almost exclusively as a blocking fullback by Tice.
Rodriguez played just 217 snaps last season and was used to block on 169 of those, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He was targeted on just eight passes, catching four of them, according to ESPN.
Rodriguez performed well in that role as he graded out positively on PFF (subscription required) and as the 12th-best run-blocking fullback. However, limiting him to that role is a waste of his skill set and athletic ability.
Coming out of the draft, Scouts Inc. (subscription required) said Rodriguez is a "smooth athlete with loose hips", that he "has the top-end speed to stretch the field vertically" and that he's a "tough runner after the catch". These are all skills that the Bears didn't even attempt to use last season.
Rodriguez will enter his second NFL season with a new coaching staff with hopes of a bigger role. Trestman told the Chicago Sun-Times "he can run well…I'm excited to see more of him and see how far we can go with his flexibility."
At the team's first minicamp in April, Rodriguez was used solely at the fullback position, but that could change, according to tight ends coach Andy Bischoff.
Bischoff told the Sun-Times that had more to do with the number of players they had at each position in camp and that they "certainly recognize his versatility."
Coming into the league, Rodriguez was often compared to New England's Aaron Hernandez. According to the measurements on NFL Draft Scout, Hernandez is slightly bigger, but Rodriguez is faster and more athletic.
Here you see Hernandez lined up at fullback in order to get matched up with a linebacker. He wins the one-on-one matchup for an easy touchdown.
It's hard to say if the Bears will use Rodriguez the same way the Patriots use Hernandez. New England—like many NFL teams—rarely use a fullback, but Trestman has used one in the past and it seems that's where Rodriguez has started out. However, unlike last year, that doesn't mean he'll be wasted, just used differently.
In the past, the Bears haven't thrown to their fullbacks much, but Trestman has been successful with that position in the passing game. Larry Centers caught 69 passes when he was the offensive coordinator in Arizona in 1998 and William Floyd caught 47 in eight games when Trestman called the plays for the 49ers in 1995.
Trestman has said numerous times that he adjusts his offense to the talent at hand, and the numbers back that claim up.
Even if he's used primarily as a fullback, he'll likely be moved around. Receiver Earl Bennett said the offense "moves everybody around" on ESPN 1000's "Carmen and Jurko Show." Rodriguez has shown he can line up and play a traditional fullback role. His skills and college tape suggests he can move closer to the line of scrimmage and perhaps even line up wide on occasion.
The Bears enter next season short on proven playmakers. Matt Forte is expected to be used more as a receiver and Marshall can be expected to catch around 100 passes again, but the rest of the plays are up for grabs. Martellus Bennett should help them in their base package, but receivers Earl Bennett and Alshon Jeffery have yet to prove they can be healthy and consistent. If Rodriguez has a good showing in training camp, the Bears may use him more than they use a third receiver.
While many people think of the NFL as a more wide-open passing game, the best teams find ways to use the talent at hand. According to the snap counts on PFF (subscription required) the San Francisco 49ers used tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker and fullback Bruce Miller on more snaps than they played any receiver other than Michael Crabtree.
As you see in the above photo, the 49ers lined Miller and Walker out wide with Davis as the tight end and Crabtree in the slot. The Bears don't have a second tight end of Walker's caliber, but there's reason to believe Rodriguez can be used in a more versatile role.
Below, you see New Orleans option their fullback—Jed Collins—out wide to take coverage away from receiver Marques Colston. The Saints didn't use Collins as a receiver very much out of that formation, but Rodriguez's skill set would give the Bears the option of doing so.
Rodriguez has been putting the work in this offseason as he was in Miami working with Marshall, Jeffery and others. While there, he got himself in a bit of trouble, but that issue has since been sorted out.
Teams can never have too many playmakers, but they have to know how to utilize them. Rodriguez's skill set isn't the same as traditional tight ends or fullbacks, but players with unique abilities are valuable if placed in the proper hands. Trestman has shown the ability to get the most out of the talent he has given, regardless of their positions.
Rodriguez is an unconventional player who was forced in a conventional role last year. If Trestman and his staff can think outside the box, they might have a star their predecessors didn't know how to use.
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