The Cleveland Browns have decided to give MarQueis Gray a shot to play fullback in their offense, which is an interesting transition. Gray, the former Minnesota Golden Gopher quarterback turned tight end and occasional ball carrier in at quarterback now goes back to the backfield, but in a different role. This could be a move that pays dividends for the Browns as they would have a unique athlete at the position, but it also feels as though if Gray does not flourish in this role, he is out of places to go and his shot with the Browns could be at an end.
The Browns, with Ray Farmer, Mike Pettine, and Kyle Shanahan in the fold have dabbled with the fullback position, but it has not really become really clear how much they really value the position or if they feel it is a vital part of their offensive scheme. It may be a situation where if they find a player and a fit they like, they will use it and if not, they could simply scrap it. The Browns had signed Chris Pressley from the Cincinnati Bengals, but he has already been cut. They still have Chris Ogbannaya and while they could view that as an option, their moves suggest they are not enthralled with his fit. That leaves undrafted free agent Ray Agnew as the only other competitor for the spot with Gray as it stands right now.
It is also not clear at this point if they want a true, classic blocking fullback or more of an H-back type situation. Generally, a player like Gray is used as the latter. He does not have ideal size relative to his weight and being 6’4″ makes it difficult to be a fullback because leverage is at a premium. Gray is at least listed at 242lbs while Agnew is 247lbs, but Gray is six inches taller than Agnew.
Gray is a strong player who has shown what he could do with the ball in his hands, but winning with leverage and maximizing his functional strength could be difficult. If Gray can do it, suddenly the Browns have an interesting weapon on their hands, because if he can prove to be an effective lead blocker, he can also be a receiving option. Using concepts like playaction or simply a delayed release out of the backfield, defenses can simply not account for the fullback or just lose him in different situations and a simple dump off pass can extend drives and get first downs.
One of the more successful versions of this has been in Miami where the Dolphins have gotten a great deal of production out of their H-back Charles Clay. Clay caught 69 passes this past year for an impressive 759 yards and 6 touchdowns while also getting 7 carries for 15 yards and a touchdown. Oakland’s Marcel Reese has been a more balanced threat with 216 yards on the ground and 331 yards through the air with 4 touchdowns. Clay and Reese are both shorter and heavier than Gray.
The quarterback to fullback move is not unprecedented as Cleveland’s inspiration in the Seattle Seahawks did the same thing with another former Big Ten quarterback in Michael Robinson. While the Seahawks have found a way to make it work with Robinson, it has not been productive in terms of his own statistics and production. He only touched the ball four times all of last season with one of them coming the playoffs. Robinson is lighter than Gray, but he does have an advantage with leverage being that he is only 6’1″.
This will not be an easy transition for Gray. And if the Browns want him to be one-dimensional blocking back, it could be extremely difficult. However, if they are putting an athlete like Gray back there, it stands to reason they would like to get him the ball at least a few times. Otherwise, they could have and could still be more aggressive in finding someone to come in and do the job. J.C. Copeland was a hammer of a fullback with big time size at 270lbs that helped to pave the way for Jeremy Hill at LSU. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Dallas Cowboys. If they wanted more of a pure H-back type player, Jake Murphy was a nice option that went undrafted out of Utah and is currently in Oakland. Murphy had arguably the best hands in the draft.
It is still not clear just how vital the Browns feel fullback is to what they want to do on offense. Unless they secretly love Agnew or they are putting Gray back there knowing he will do the job, it appears to be optional. Should Gray ultimately be unable to do the job, it is difficult to imagine the Browns will move him back to tight end. It seems like an opportunity for Gray to be the man at that spot, but it may also be a do or die situation for him and potentially be his last option to keep his career going in Cleveland. There is an interesting amount of potential if Gray can find a home back there as a weapon out of the backfield, but it has to start with being able to be the type of lead blocker that Tony Grossi could be proud to have on the Browns.