The battle for the New York Giants' starting fullback position will be the most absorbing one to watch this summer.
Henry Hynoski vs. John Conner. The Hynoceros vs. The Terminator. A Polish Pennsylvanian who entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of Pittsburgh vs. a former Kentucky Wildcat walk-on later named All-American.
It's a good thing Hynoski and Conner are only figuratively going "head-to-head"—if these two men were actually to collide in training camp, neither would survive the summer.
Before we evaluate the two candidates for the available position, let's be clear that, regardless of who wins this battle, the Giants will field one quality fullback—but only one. The true fullback is a dying breed in today's NFL, and the position just isn't valuable enough to warrant a roster spot reservation for a backup.
In other words, the winner will be a starter, and the loser will be a roster casualty. The margin for error will be minute.
So, who will it be? A fullback who joined the Giants off the street in 2013, somewhat stabilizing a depleted, devastated offensive backfield? Or a fullback who is a veteran of New York, one of only six remaining starters from the Super Bowl XLVI team?
Zoom in on this battle. To predict the winner, we must suspect the type of fullback rookie offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo desires is like the one he experienced in Green Bay. Since 2007, the Packers have featured John Kuhn at fullback. And I mean it when I say he was featured; in seven seasons, Kuhn carried the ball 163 times for 488 yards and 12 touchdowns, also receiving 71 passes for 478 yards and eight touchdowns.
|Three Fullbacks by the Numbers|
|John Kuhn||7 Seasons||116||163-488-12||71-478-8|
|John Conner||4 Seasons||50||21-88-2||10-49-0|
|Henry Hynoski||3 Seasons||30||5-20-0||24-138-1|
Not Jim Brown numbers, but still gaudy stats for a fullback in today's day and age.
Kuhn's heaviest workload came in 2010, when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, and he was named a Pro Bowler the following season. In New York, McAdoo will want a player who fits the mold of Green Bay's 6'0", 250-pound fullback, who was just recently rewarded with a new contract.
The going rate for a distinguished fullback in 2014: one year, $1 million.
According to the Giants' roster, Hynoski is one inch taller and 16 pounds heavier than Kuhn, while Conner is an inch shorter and five pounds lighter. But this is only where the differences begin, as the remainder of this article will highlight, analyze and, ultimately, predict the winner of the Giants' starting fullback battle.
Hynoski reached restricted free agency earlier this offseason, but the Giants chose not to tender the fullback who played in only three games last season. After working his way back from left MCL damage and a fractured lateral plateau suffered in May 2013, Hynoski landed on injured reserve with a fractured shoulder early in the regular season. He eventually re-signed as an unrestricted free agent, one day after visiting with the Detroit Lions.
The terms of his deal were nearly identical to those of Kuhn's deal.
The day after Hynoski re-signed, the fullback also declared himself "100 percent healthy," per a tweet by Paul Schwartz of the New York Post.
And just like that, the fullback battle was on between Hynoski and Conner, his 2013 midseason replacement.
Conner, who signed a two-year deal with the Giants in 2013, will earn only $730,000 if he makes the team this season. The Giants have no dead money tied up in Conner's contract, whereas Hynoski walks away with $250,000 (his signing bonus) even if he is cut tomorrow, per Spotrac.com. Financially, there is little to no advantage to keeping one fullback over the other.
Still, since Conner was already signed through the 2014 season, the decision to re-sign Hynoski was criticized by Dan Graziano of ESPN. However, when you consider the Giants will pay center David Baas substantially more not to play for them in 2014 than they will pay for Hynoski's and Conner's tryouts combined, the money spent on this relatively cheap position battle, sure to be contentious, deserves little criticism.
Besides, neither of these fullbacks is as experienced as the 31-year-old Kuhn, who has appeared in 116 games as a professional. Conner has less than half of Kuhn's figure under his belt with 50 games played in the pros, while Hynoski's 30-game sample size is by far the tiniest. The uncertainty surrounding this lack of experience will make the Giants' coaching staff glad it can chose the best of two fullbacks in its search for the next John Kuhn.
The question Hynoski faces this summer: Can he pick up where he left off at the end of the 2012 season?
After winning the starting fullback job as a rookie in 2011, New York posted the league's worst rushing attack, averaging a meager 89.2 yards on the ground per game. A year later, Hynoski's second season with the Giants, the ground game improved significantly, then averaging 116.4 yards per game (14th in NFL). The offensive line hardly improved during this time, so much of the additional room to run could be attributed to Hynoski's individual development as a blocker during that time.
That's likely the way USA Football saw things, as the sport's national governing body named Hynoski to its 2012 All-Fundamentals team, singling him out as a fullback who "exhibit[s] exemplary football techniques," via Giants.com.
While Hynoski was fresh off a Super Bowl, clearly on the upswing with the Giants, Conner's time across town, as a member of the New York Jets, was simultaneously running out.
In October of 2012, after sustaining a sprain to his MCL—the same ligament Hynoski would injure less than a year later—Conner was released by the Jets, agreeing upon an injury settlement. The Cincinnati Bengals then scooped up Conner, only to use him in two games and later dump him in August of 2013.
A month passed, and Conner was a Giant.
Hynoski, who scored his very first touchdown—a one-yard reception—in the final game of 2012, had rising expectations heading into 2013. Conner's effectiveness off the street, however, had Giants fans missing Hynoski much less than expected last season. After all, the offensive line was in a state of disrepair, leaving quarterback Eli Manning under fire more often than not with few viable running back options to relieve the pressure on his arm.
There were bigger fish to fry than Conner, Hynoski or, quite frankly, anyone who could have suited up for New York at fullback in 2013.
Conner did what he could to keep the Giants' running game afloat, but, instead, it again sank to the league's depths, as New York's rush offense ranked 29th in the NFL (83.3 yards/game). It would be erroneous to pin the blame for this regression solely on Conner, as there was little one man could have done to reverse the Giants' total offensive implosion of 2013.
Now, the problems that plagued last year's Giants—such as offensive line and running back depth—have been remedied through free agency and the draft. Conner deserves the chance to showcase his ability in these new, improved offensive conditions. Similarly, Hynoski deserves every shot to win back his starting fullback job after incurring a series of unfortunate injuries.
Hynoski and Conner are far more likely to blow up a linebacker than the box score, but that's the case with any fullback across the league today. However, if either player can help the Giants reclaim a top-10 rushing offense for the first time since 2010, when Madison Hedgecock was the starter, that fullback will receive the rare Pro Bowl recognition Kuhn experienced in 2011.
The Winner: A fully healthy Hynoski, determined to build on the growth he displayed in 2012, will oust Conner, his 2013 replacement, for the starting job in 2014. The difference will be the 20 pounds Hynoski has on Conner, with his pass-catching ability and Super Bowl experience serving as X-factors in the decision to keep The Hynoceros over The Terminator.