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.
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.
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.