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The Muscle Man Has Won Over the Head Man

Head coach Matt LaFleur has been surly lately about the team’s training camp performance. He is upset about a lack of urgency, a shortage of focus, and general sloppiness. The abrupt release of Jason Spriggs was probably one manifestation of the coach’s petulance. A few remaining marginal players, and particularly holdovers from past Ted Thompson drafts like Spriggs, are additional candidates for the chopping block.

One player who need not worry too much about job security is an unlikely one: Danny Vitale, a guy in his fourth year of trying to find his niche in the NFL. While LaFleur does hand out compliments as freely as he criticizes, how often do you hear him call someone “awesome”?

Following a practice session late last week, here’s what the coach had to say about Vitale:

“In the process of interviewing for this job, I watched a bunch of film on him and I was excited about him. He’s a versatile guy. He can catch balls out of the backfield. That’s one of the things we look at when we’re trying to find a fullback. Can he catch a check down? Or can you use a guy similar to how Juszczyk is used in San Francisco? That’s what I thought about Danny. . .He’s been awesome. Smart guy. And he brings something to the table if we need him in third down, drop-back situations.”

What’s next, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine saying one of his guys doesn’t totally suck?

As to the reference to the 49ers’ Kyle Juszczyk, here’s what Kyle Shanahan, running a similar offense to what LaFleur plans, has gotten out of him the past two years: 33 catches for 315 yards in 2017, and 30 catches for 324 yards in 2018. Though he only rushed fifteen times for 61 yards during that span, he was named to the Pro Bowl each season.

 

Danny Vitale - Northwestern 2015

Nov 28, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats fullback Dan Vitale (40) catches a touchdown pass with Illinois Fighting Illini defensive back Taylor Barton (3) defending during the first half at Soldier Field. Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The Superback from Northwestern

After being a sixth-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2016, Vitale also has spent portions of two seasons warming the bench in Cleveland. Including his one two-yard catch for Green Bay, his pro resume over three years totals eight catches for 48 yards. And, that’s right, no rushes.

The Packers placed Vitale on their practice squad last October, after he was released by the Browns. Could it be that GM Brian Gutekunst was already planning on moving on from McCarthy to LaFleur just weeks before he let McCarthy go? I can’t think of any other reason the Packers would have been after a fullback in that mid-season.

To get a better idea of why Vitale is shaping up to be the Packers’ feel-good story of 2019, you have to go back to Vitale’s college days at Northwestern. Vitale grew up in Wheaton, Illinois as a Bears fan, and enrolled in nearby Northwestern. Vitale earned the moniker of “superback” at Northwestern for his versatility. He was a fine run-blocker and pass protector, a superb receiver, and a capable short-yardage runner. He was adept at seam routes, underneath patterns, and shovel passes. In his final year, he led his team in yards, receptions, and touchdowns.

Danny is a rarity in today’s pro ranks: he was a four-year starter at Northwestern. Though often the doormat of the Big 10 conference, the Wildcats did make it to bowl games in his freshman and senior years. He capped off his career by being named a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2015.

While at Northwestern, Vitale’s line as a receiver was: 135 catches for 1,427 yards, a 10.6 yards per catch average, and eleven touchdowns; his rushing stats: six carries for 29 yards. There’s little indication that the Packers will employ him any differently.

He also got an invite to the NFL Combine. While his dash time was only 4.60 seconds, his 30 bench presses was tied for most of any running back. He also had a vertical jump of 38”, which would have put him in the top five of any position group that year. At 6’ and 239 pounds, he has the physique of an Olympian weightlifter.

As he awaited the 2016 draft, the Vitale family openly worried about a worst case scenario: what if he got chosen by the Packers? I’m guessing they’ve changed their tune on that score. He wound up being a sixth-round draft selection by Tampa Bay.

 

Danny Vitale Packers Training Camp 2019

Jul 25, 2019; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packer Danny Vitale (45) rides a bicycle to first day of training camp at Ray Nitschke Field. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

LaFleur’s Plans for Vitale

Coach LaFleur has made it fairly clear how he plans to utilize the muscle man:

“I just think we’re one of the few offenses that will utilize the fullback outside of this short-yardage, goal-line situation. I think it gives you some flexibility from an offensive perspective. It gives you more options.”

During training camp, Vitale has been seeping out of the backfield and getting wide-open on a daily basis. He’s also displayed great hands, and even better, he’s also got Aaron Rodgers raving about him. Since his college highlight films don’t feature him as a blocker, I can’t be sure of his skills there, though the Packers are surely counting on him to offer Rodgers solid protection when he’s not sent out as a receiver.

Fullbacks might be an endangered species in the NFL, but receiving/blocking back specialists are on the rise, and LaFleur seems to have inherited a good one. Don’t look for Danny Vitale to merely make the team’s final roster – look for him to play a substantial role in the team’s new offensive schemes.

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Rob Born

Someone else said it first but I popularized it: “Athleticism is important in athletic pursuits.” It took three years, but the Packers finally listened. My new mantra: “Trading down is fine, but never trade up.”

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10 Comments

  1. The Money Mike August 8, 2019

    Drain the swamp!

    There are (10) players drafted after Spriggs who have made the Pro Bowl, including Deion Jones, Kevin Byard, Austin Hooper, Joe Schobert, Dak Prescott (Not a need), Jordan Howard and Tyreek Hill.

    Cory Littleton is an undrafted Pro Bowler.

    Thanks TT and MMs!

    Reply
  2. PF4L August 8, 2019

    As i scrolled this article, it hit me. we can’t even have the players ride the kids bikes to the practice field without making a buck off of it? Really? Don’t tell me that American family bike is that kids personal bike.
    ***
    I think Murphy would sell his Mother…for the right price.
    ***
    Is it any wonder why Murphy’s focus hasn’t been on the sustained well being of this team over the years. But to his credit, he dug in and found some problems. Therefore taking over total control and everything runs through him. Result…6-9-1.
    ***
    If this team loses this year, this 4 year rebuilding plan will be scrapped and the Packers will hire a new President and start over from scratch. But….cup half full, we got us a sledding hill, a hot chocolate stand, and some American Family Sponsor cash.

    Reply
    1. Deepsky August 8, 2019

      I was in Green Bay this last week. Talked to some fans who are familiar with Packer management. These are just rumors, of course, but from what I heard, if Murphy doesn’t have a winning record this season, he’s gone. John Dorsey purchased a house in Door County a couple years ago and I think his older kids live in Wisconsin. He might just be waiting in the wings.

      Reply
    2. PF4L August 8, 2019

      I think the Dorsey ship might have sailed Deep. I’d imagine he has a 3-5 deal in Cleveland, and he’s in a great situation with that team if he can keep everyone’s ego’s in check. If Cleveland won a Super Bowl, that place would be out of control. Those fans deserve it and i secretly would be rooting for them, just don’t tell anyone that.

      Reply
    3. Skinny August 8, 2019

      This has been going on for a few years now. The bike ride stuff is all set up ahead of time. Its a joke now. Everything has to be a sentimental moment now and filmed, photographed and profited from. There’s no spontaneity to any of this shit anymore. It aint like the old days when a kid could get to Lambeau early, deal with no security or team officials and catch Favre coming out a back door hungover and ready for a bike ride to the practice field. I miss those days!

      Reply
  3. KILLER August 8, 2019

    Just a follow up on the Mike Daniels departure in which Daniels was then showered by Packer fans and Hit Job Rob Born with abuse and criticism such as being too fat and out of shape.

    Facts always make Packer fans so uncomfortable so most of you will fear checking this out just as much as you fear looking in a mirror. Hey, I don’t blame you! Not much.

    https://twitter.com/pff/status/1158381150483681280

    Reply
    1. PF4L August 8, 2019

      He’s not fat, he’s big boned. Plus he’s 7 months pregnant, but he’s still fast enough to run a 7.6 40.

      Reply
  4. Kato August 8, 2019

    Heh, I live in Wheaton. Didn’t see him play ball here though.

    Reply
    1. PF4L August 8, 2019

      ^FIB^

      Reply
    2. Kato August 9, 2019

      It’s true. I hate this state. I hope it becomes a giant sinkhole. Especially Chicago.

      Reply

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