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As fullbacks fade in the NFL, Vikings have found key role for CJ Ham

A few years ago he was a pure run blocker, now the Vikings' popular fullback is doing something different and subtly improving the passing game

EAGAN — When Jerome Felton arrived in Minnesota, he knew it was make or break time for his career. His first three seasons were spent with the struggling Detroit Lions and then he had brief stints with Carolina and Indianapolis. Felton knew that if he didn’t show the Vikings that he was the man to lead block for the team’s superstar running back then his tenure in the NFL might fall under the “not for long” category.

In training camp, Felton turned himself into a missile. Day after day he slammed into linebackers so hard that he couldn’t move his neck. If he was laying down flat on his back, he had to hold up his head with his hand or it would hurt like crazy. Felton remembered his running back’s coach in Detroit, legendary fullback Sam Gash, telling him to get a neck roll. At the time, he thought neck rolls were a pretty corny look — after all, Felton ran for 2,652 yards and 63 touchdowns in college at Furman. Even if he was a blocker in the NFL, he wasn’t trying to look like a human garbage truck. But he was in so much discomfort during that training camp of pain that he threw on the neck roll and went back to ramming defenders with his helmet.

“My job was: I have to run as fast as I possibly can and hit this guy like a missile with no regard to how much it's going to hurt and you have to say f--k it,” Felton said over the phone this week. “This is going to suck, it's going to hurt, just launch yourself.”

Felton launched himself into the Pro Bowl. His running back had one of the greatest seasons of all time and in the season’s final game one of the best quarterbacks in history walked over to him and complimented his work on the season. He loved telling his friends about that.

This story sounds like it’s from 1991 but in fact it was only 11 years ago. The running back was Adrian Peterson, who cleared 2,000 yards in 2012, and the QB who told him he was having a great year was Aaron Rodgers.

Felton, who is finishing up law school at Emory University with plans to join a law firm in Atlanta next fall, has seen a remarkable shift in the way fullbacks are used since he was plowing holes for Peterson.

“They don't play my style of football like with Adrian where we were downhill power lead blocking,” Felton said. “I don't even know if you could run those same types of plays anymore because to run that play when a linebacker comes to fill a hole I was using the crown of my helmet to jolt them and shock them and move them out of the way and I don't think you can even do that anymore.”

Dec 7, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings fullback Jerome Felton (42) celebrates his touchdown during the second quarter against the New York Jets at TCF Bank Stadium.

Dec 7, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings fullback Jerome Felton (42) celebrates his touchdown during the second quarter against the New York Jets at TCF Bank Stadium.

According to PFF, Felton had 277 run blocking snaps in 2012. He was one of 11 fullbacks who had over 200 snaps and 23 fullbacks were on the field for at least 100 plays during that season. This year there are only five fullbacks who are over 100 run blocking snaps through 13 weeks and it’s possible nobody else will even reach triple digits by season’s end.

Surprisingly, Vikings fullback CJ Ham is not one of those guys with 100 run blocking snaps. He has only been a lead blocker for Alexander Mattison 50 times, which is a massive change from a few years ago when he was out there 223 times running in front of Dalvin Cook in 2019.

Instead Ham leads all fullbacks in pass blocking snaps. Under Kevin O’Connell he has taken on — and thrived in — a new role that may be a model for the position’s survival in the future.

When O’Connell arrived in 2022, he did not bring much history with fullbacks with him. He was fresh off winning the Super Bowl with Sean McVay’s Rams, which largely used personnel groupings with one running back and three wide receivers. When KOC was the offensive coordinator in Washington in 2019 they had fullback Michael Burton but he was only out there for 68 plays.

Ham’s snap count was cut in half from 2021 under Klint Kubiak to 2022 with O’Connell. It appeared that he might have to go on the job hunt if he wanted to continue lead blocking for outside zone plays.

But in training camp this year the offensive staff came to Ham with an idea. What if he became an interior pass blocking specialist? In 2022 the Vikings’ biggest problem on offense was interior pressure. They allowed more QB pressures from the guard position than any other team in the NFL and anybody who watched the Netflix series on Kirk Cousins saw that the veteran quarterback’s ribs paid for it.

O’Connell’s offense likes to push the ball downfield and on third downs he wants to throw past the sticks. That means using double moves and long-developing route combinations that require the QB to stand in the pocket for a long time. Those plays do not work particularly well if monster defensive tackles, blitzing linebackers or stunting defensive ends come flying through to hit the quarterback. The offensive staff thought if Ham could shore up the middle then Cousins would have more time to let it all develop.

“During training camp it was one of those things where the coaches brought it up to me,” Ham said. “‘Are you ready to be in there on third down, we’re going to look to you on these third down pass pro looks?’ I was like, ‘yeah, I’m good, I’m ready, I’m excited, I’m down to do it.’ Worked on it in training camp and it led into the season.”

The plan makes sense but you can’t just stick any old big body in the middle and expect it to work. Third down is where defensive coordinators make their dollars. Ham has to be ready to see anything and everything.

“As a third down protector you have to be almost as aware as the quarterback,” Felton said. “You have to be able to identify where the safeties are and if they are cheating up and they might bring somebody off the edge or is there a stunt and you might have to help the offensive linemen…. One second you might be blocking a 240 pound middle linebacker who is going to bulldoze you and then you might be blocking a DB in space. Some of those guys are going to make you miss. CJ can step up and be physical and nimble enough to get in some space with those guys and not allow them to make him miss and have a free run to the quarterback.”

Offensive coordinator Wes Phillips explained that the staff concocted the role around Ham’s high football IQ.

“I don’t think there are that many fullbacks that are like CJ,” Phillips said. “CJ is a guy that you could plug into just about any position on the field and he would know his assignment and he would do it right. For the protection game on third downs we felt like we could use his skillset as being stout in protection, being really smart with things moving quickly because he processes things really fast.”

Phillips continued…

“There’s some tough matchups up there [on the offensive line] especially when you are one-on-one and he’s stepped up there and given us time and given us that second hitch to deliver a ball. I’m excited about where he’s at and that we’ve been able to use him more.”

Felton has a smile on his face watching Ham step up and stuff pass rushers before they reach the quarterback. When he watches football and sees a fullback on the field, he’s always hoping for a positive play so the team will go back to the fullback and he roots for coaching staffs like San Francisco and Miami that still use the position. But Felton acknowledges that it takes an unusual player to fill those shoes.

“It really speaks to CJ not just as a fullback and as a football player in general how he's making himself valuable by being able to do third down pass protections, it transcends his actual position,” Felton said. “He does whatever needs to be done. That's one of his best traits.”

Former Viking Johnny Stanton feels the pain of the fullback position’s extinction. He was a quarterback in college and transitioned to fullback with the Vikings. Stanton spent time behind Ham on the practice squad in 2019 and then followed Kevin Stefanski to Cleveland in 2020, where he played in five games between 2020 and 2021. He was waived out of camp in 2022 and was not able to latch on with another team. Only one-half of the league has used a fullback in any capacity this year, leaving few opportunities for players to develop.

When Stanton was making the switch from QB to FB, Ham was a willing teacher.

“He's somebody who, in every essence of the word, a captain,” Stanton said over the phone. “I was trying to learn as quickly as possible. [Running backs coach] Polamalu didn't always have time to spend with the rookie fullback and CJ was incredibly valuable in learning and teaching me when he didn't need to.”

As Stanton grew into his neck-roll role, he started to research fullbacks that came before him. Back in the day, everywhere you would running backs making history, a fullback would be there. From Howard Griffith lead blocking for Terrell Davis’s 2,000-yard season to Lorenzo Neal leading the way for LaDanian Tomlinson’s 28 touchdowns to Daryl Johnston plowing the way for Emmitt Smith’s all-time rushing record. Heck, Emmitt cried during his Hall of Fame speech when talking about how much Johnston did for him.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, left, knocks Cleveland Browns running back Johnny Stanton (40) out of bounds during NFL football practice, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Berea, Ohio. Brownscamp12 18

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, left, knocks Cleveland Browns running back Johnny Stanton (40) out of bounds during NFL football practice, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Berea, Ohio. Brownscamp12 18

One thing Stanton came away with was how different fullbacks are these days because of the players that they are asked to block. In Cleveland he practiced against Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a linebacker who is listed at 221 pounds. You can bet that Jerome Felton wasn’t facing any linebackers that size.

“The league is using less fullbacks but there's also the reaction to the shrinking of the linebacker and the linebacker becoming more of an athletic runner and needing to have the speed to cover the pass and it's changed the way they fill [in run defense],” Stanton said. “One of the quickest thing I learned in the league is that guys aren't going to let you hit them…they're going to try to avoid you. CJ is somebody who helped me learn that and he's incredibly good at being able to track down guys and and that tracking skill is what changes a downhill blocker into an athlete.”

That’s how both Felton and Stanton see CJ Ham: An athlete, a football player.

“The role of the fullback has become much more of a utility player, the analog to MLB's utility infielder,” Stanton said. “Somebody who can lead block on inside or outside zone but also stick around as an extra tight end, an emergency running back or a fourth receiver or a third down running back, special teams animal -- somebody who can play all these different positions and succeed and not be given room for error despite the fact you might not have practiced much during the week. It's the fullback's role to take what's handed to him and be thankful for it. That's what makes the fullback position so difficult.”

Both former fullbacks credit the Vikings’ coaches for coming up with something new for Ham but there’s an important part we can’t forget: Is it working?

Per PFF, Ham has been in pass protection 40 times this year and allowed three pressures. He ranks in the top 10 highest graded RB/FBs in pass protection grade, which is particularly impressive since all of those reps have been under the most difficult circumstances.

Here is an example of Ham stopping one of the league’s best linebackers Fred Warner on a blitz. You can see that the 49ers have loaded up six defenders across the line of scrimmage and it’s not clear who’s going to rush or drop back.

CJ Ham lined up in Vikings backfield, prepared to stop 49ers linebacker Fred Warner

CJ Ham lined up in Vikings backfield, prepared to stop 49ers linebacker Fred Warner

After the snap, everyone comes at Kirk Cousins. The right guard takes Nick Bosa, the right tackle takes the outside rusher and Warner rushes free at the QB. That is, until Ham steps up and stuffs him, allowing Cousins to complete a pass over the middle to Jordan Addison.

CJ Ham blocking 49ers linebacker Fred Warner

CJ Ham blocking 49ers linebacker Fred Warner

But it isn’t just blitzes that he is picking up. Sometimes it’s other types of rushes that are meant to cause confusion along the offensive line and any miscommunication can result in a pressure.

Here’s is the pre-snap look of a four-man rush that has three D-linemen to the left and Bosa alone on the right side.

CJ Ham lined up alongside Kirk Cousins

CJ Ham lined up alongside Kirk Cousins

Gregory (No. 5) rushes to the right side of the line while Bosa cuts inside. Bosa gets an edge on right tackle Brian O’Neill and is just about to get in Cousins’ grill when Ham steps up and stops him in his tracks, allowing for a quick completion.

CJ Ham blocking 49ers pass rusher Nick Bosa

CJ Ham blocking 49ers pass rusher Nick Bosa

Ham doesn’t just wake up and identify these different looks. He said it’s all about the work that’s done leading up to the game.

“Defenses on third-and-long get pretty exotic and give you not normal looks. It’s about the preparation,” Ham said. “Our team does a great job of identifying those things and making sure prepared. You have to listen up, take good notes and be ready for anything.”

The one question about the Vikings using Ham this way might be: Doesn’t this take away a potential receiving option? The answer is yes, though Ham has shown in his career that he can make plays (remember his deep sideline catch in 2021?). But the sacrifice of not having potential check down versus him being able to add to pass protection is a good trade off.

“In a third-and-long, must-get scenario where you have to throw the ball 15-20 yards, instead of being happy with a checkdown to a running back…We don't care if the defense knows that CJ isn't going out for a pass, we are just looking for him to be somebody who can pick up a defensive tackle if he comes off the guard,” Stanton explained.

Standing in and protecting isn’t the only way the Vikings have used Ham as a single back. On a play in Green Bay, he lined up as the lone setback and then became a downfield blocker for Addison on a screen, clearing out a safety and gaining 5-7 extra yards on the play.

Every week there’s a new wrinkle. Most of the time, it goes unnoticed. But that’s OK for fullbacks.

“I’m extremely thankful,” Ham said. “At the end of the day I just want to play football… I’ve done a little bit of everything over my career so I’m thankful they saw something in me and I’m sticking around.”

It is a copy-cat league, so maybe we will see more teams deploying the big men in the backfield on pure passing situations in order to counter the ever-increasing number of beastly pass rushing defensive tackles and creative defensive coordinators.

Or maybe Ham’s role will be hard to replicate because there aren’t many players who can do it.

“He's just a rare guy, to be honest with you,” Felton said.