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Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Luke Inman contributed to this story.
Who knew that a fullback could be this versatile in today’s NFL?
Minnesota Vikings’ emphasis on running the football, getting nastier and overpowering opponents has been well-publicized. Nothing may characterize that mentality switch better than their use of fullback C.J. Ham, who’s became a staple in the Kevin Stefanski/Gary Kubiak offense.
The Minnesota Vikings kept a healthy posse of running backs on the roster behind workhorse Dalvin Cook, but it’s been fullback C.J. Ham who’s seen more time on the field than Alexander Mattison, Mike Boone or Ameer Abdullah. His 73 snaps are third most in the NFL among fullbacks. It’s more than the Vikings’ third and fourth receivers Chad Beebe and Bisi Johnson combined, and it’s only 11 fewer than backup tight end Irv Smith Jr.
The analytics are extremely fond of Ham as well, with Pro Football Focus ranking him as the third-best fullback in football and the second-best run-blocker, though it doesn’t take an analytical wizard to identify bulldozing blocks like the one below.
Mike Zimmer was asked Monday about how much influence Ham has had on the Vikings’ second-ranked rushing offense.
“Quite a bit,” Zimmer said. “It’s a chance to get an extra blocker to the point of attack a lot of times. Then sometimes we use him to get the linebackers going one way and bring the runner back the other way.”
Ham’s snaps have only increased, rising from 22 to 25 to 26 in the most recent win over Oakland. His high last year was 20 in a loss at Los Angeles, and he averaged just over nine snaps a game, but Stefanski foreshadowed his usage of Ham when he used him for 18 snaps against Miami in his first game as the interim playcaller in 2018.
Some thought — including this writer — that Ham could be on the roster bubble in the preseason as challenger Khari Blasingame made consistent impacts in preseason games. But the team clearly had a vision for their fullback that would be better fulfilled with an experienced candidate.
Ham’s bread and butter has been run-blocking, but those haven’t been his only duties. He’s been used as a backside and frontside pass protector, as well as a receiver. Ham got two targets against Oakland, dropping a perfectly thrown slant in the first quarter and reeling in a much harder diving catch in the second half.
The pass-catching might be a work in progress, but it keeps teams honest when Ham motions to the boundary. Daryl Worley played nearly 10 yards off of Ham on the play below and might’ve given up a double-digit gain if Ham completed the catch.
Here’s Ham’s catch, where he makes amends for his earlier drop, albeit for a one-yard gain.
For what it’s worth, the Vikings scored an Alexander Mattison touchdown and got a 25-yard run from Dalvin Cook when Ham was lined up wide occupying a defensive player. In both instances, Ham was able to screen the defensive back from pursuing the run.
That man has a family, @AlexMattison22!
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) September 22, 2019
Against Oakland, Ham was sent in motion frequently, often as part of a trips formation from which he motioned into an I-formation. As quarterback Kirk Cousins has explained about the Vikings’ oft-used pre-snap motion, it “changes the defenses’ rules,” and in the case below, turns a likely passing look into a run look. Ham leads the way as Alexander Mattison picks up a first down.
Ham was helpful to all three backs the Vikings used on Sunday. Not only did he block for Mattison’s above first down but also cleared out body’s on Cook’s one-yard touchdown run and Mike Boone’s 24-yard run late in the game.
Sometimes fullbacks can come and go week to week as team’s gameplan for a specific opponent, but Ham’s consistent usage indicates he’ll be involved regularly.
In a league that’s seen fullbacks’ roles decreasing, and in some cases eliminated completely, Ham’s influential start to the season is the type of the old school callback that typifies Minnesota’s new approach.