Twenty-Eight Days And A 28 Year Old Old-School Player

Twenty-eight days to the NFL Hall Of Fame Game and the unofficial start of the 2019 NFL season. Today we take a  look at a 28 year old player that has been a true utility player and a model that other teams may emulate. Wikipedia defines a utility player in sports as a player who can play several positions competently. These players were much more common or utilized in the older days of the NFL.

Saints second year player Taysom Hill played in all 16 of the Saints regular-season games and both of their playoff games in 2018 as a wide receiver, slot receiver, running back, quarterback, tight end, returner and gunner.  He is the epitome of versatility.

In the early days of football players played multiple positions as substitutions were restricted. Chuck Bednarik was one of the last two-way players playing both offense as a center and defense as a linebacker.  Bednarik played until 1962.

The number of seasons a player has had 3+ receptions, 80+ rushing yards and from 3 to 50 pass attempts since 2000 total to 11 seasons. That is over almost two decades. In the prior seven decades from 1930s to 1990s that number is 409.

In the 1930s there were 97 occurrences of seasons meeting the search criteria for offensive skills position versatility shown above. In the 1930s Giants fullback/ halfback Tuffy Leemans  had 3,132 rushing yards on 919 carries (3.4 yards per carry) and 17 rushing touchdowns, 2,318 passing yards and 25 passing touchdowns, 422 receiving yards on 28 receptions, and 339 yards on punt and kickoff returns. He also played defense where he had 4 interceptions. “Leemans was probably greater on defense than he was on offense. He was a bugger on defense, all over the field, always in on the action.” – Fellow Hall of Famer Alex Wojciechowicz who played against Leemans. Leemans met the search criteria above for four consecutive seasons. Leemans passed for 966 yards in his college career.

In the 1940s there were 76 occurrences of seasons meeting the search criteria.  Chicago Cardinal halfback Charley Trippi led the NFL in 1948 in all purpose yards. That year he also led the league in yards per carry with 5.4. He completed 4 of 8 passes for 118 yards and caught 22 passes for 228 yards. In college Trippi played quarterback his first year and continued to perform passing all through college. At Georgia he passed for 1,870 yards and had a passer rating of 142.

In the 1950s there were 62 occurrences of seasons meeting the search criteria. In 1959 Giants’ halfback/receiver Frank Gifford completed 5 of 11 passes for 151 yards, rushed for 540 yards at 5.1 yards a carry, caught 42 passes for 768 yards and threw two touchdowns. Gifford met the search criteria for versatility I used for 7 seasons which was tie with Tom Matte for the most seasons. Gifford completed 29 of 63 passes in his career and had a passer rating of 92.5. That is the highest rating by a non-quarterback with that many attempts. Gifford was a quarterback his first year in college at USC and passed in both years for a total of 465 yards.

In the 1960s there were 108 occurrences of seasons meeting the search criteria.  In 1960 Cardinals running back/tight end John David Crow completed 9 of 18 passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns,  rushed for 1,071 yards at 5.85 yards a carry and had 25 receptions for 462 yards and three touchdowns. Crow met the versatility search I used for six seasons in the 1960s which was tie for second most. In his final year in college at Texas A&M Crow was in on a couple of passing plays where he completed 6 of 10 for a passing rating of 130.

In the 1970s there were 32 occurrences of seasons matching the search criteria. In 1972 running back O.J. Simpson completed 5 of 8 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown, rushed for 1,251 yards at 4.28 yards per carry and had 27 receptions for 198 yards. His 145.8 passer rating that year was third best in the league and his rushing yards was best in the league. In his first season at USC in college Simpson completed 3 of 6 passing attempts for 33 yards and three touchdowns.

In the 1980s there were 27 occurrences of seasons meeting the search criteria used for offensive weapon versatility. In 1983 running back Walter Payton completed 3 of 6 passes for 3 touchdowns, rushed for 1,421 yards at 4.53 yards per attempt  and six touchdowns,  and had 53 receptions for 607 yards and two touchdowns. Payton made my versatility query for six seasons which was tie for second.

In the 1990s there were 7 occurrences of seasons meeting the search criteria used for versatility from an offensive player. In 1990 Eagles fullback Keith Byars was 4 for 4 in pass attempts with four touchdowns. He rushed for 141 yards at a 3.81 yard average and he caught 81 receptions for 819 yards and three touchdowns. Byars’ 81 receptions that year were the third most in the league and only one short of second. His 610 career receptions ranks fourth among running backs in NFL history. His six career passing touchdowns ranks ninth among non-quarterbacks.

In the 2000s there were 8 occurrences of seasons meeting the versatility search criteria. Chargers running back Ladainian Tomlinson had 1,815 rushing yards and 28 rushing touchdowns in 2006. Both were tops in the league that year. He also had 56 receptions for 508 yards which was fifth most by a running back that year. Tomlinson was 2 for 3 on passes that year with  with two touchdowns and 20 yards. His 2005 season was also pretty good and made the query for versatility also.

So far in the 2010s there are 3 seasons that meet my versatility query. In 2010 Jets quarterback Brad Smith made it. The other two occurred in 2018 with quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Derrick Henry. In 2018 Titan back Derrick Henry completed 2 of 3 pass attempts for 14 yards, rushed for 1,059 yards at a 4.9 yard average and caught 15 passes for 99 yards.

The players that emerge among the best chosen here for each decade is that of a running back. However three of the nine had significant quarterback experience in college. Another two had some passing experience in college. The query was a little biased towards rushing as that had the highest threshold of 80 yards for a season. However when I put that threshold down to only three rush attempts it only pulled in 15 additional player seasons over the 420.

Looking forward into 2019, besides Taysom Hill and Derrick Henry who are some other prospects to fit into a potential utility player?

The Giants signed quarterback Eric Dungey as an undrafted free agent and have been working him out as a tight end. Dungey’s 754 rushing yards in 2018 was sixth among draft prospect quarterbacks and his 15 rushing touchdowns was second among all quarterbacks. Eric Dungey’s Pro Day results fit within event targets for a tight end for five of his eight events. The starting quarterback job for the Giants is relatively set with Eli Manning who should eventually be followed by first round selection Daniel  Jones.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers  signed quarterback Nick Fitzgerald as an undrafted free agent. In 2018 Fitzgerald’s 1,121 rushing yards was second among quarterbacks. Fitzgerald played receiver in high school until converting to quarterback his senior year. The starting quarterback of the Buccaneers is Jameis Winston.

Receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Saints. Humphrey had 1,176 receiving yards in 2018 which was 15th in the nation. He also completed 3 of 4 passing attempts for 18 yards and 1 touchdown. No draft prospect had more receiving yards and had a passing attempt. He also rushed for 25 yards at an average 4.2 yards per carry and one touchdown..

The Ravens chose quarterback Trace McSorley in round six of the draft. McSorley. In his senior year McSorley rushed for 798 yards at 4.7 yards per carry and scored 12 rushing touchdowns. His 12 rushing touchdowns was eighth in the nation among quarterbacks with 30+ pass attempts. McSorley was a red zone weapon. He converted 39% of his total red zone attempts to touchdowns and 40% of his red zone passing attempts. Both those red zone percentages were tops among draft prospects. The starting quarterback of the Ravens is Lamar Jackson. Taysom Hill spent roughly 10% of his snaps in the red zone. That was a similar percentage for Drew Brees. McSorley could be used in a likewise manner.

The Green Bay Packers signed quarterback Manny Wilkins as an undrafted free agent. Wilkins rushed for 452 yards at an average of 4 yards per carry and scored eight rushing touchdowns. Wilkins had a big rushing play on 20% of his 112 rushing attempts. He is said to have a powerful arm. Aaron Rodgers is the starting quarterback on the Packers.

So there are five prospects that could possibly be utilized in a similar role as Taysom Hill. They fit the scenario as Hill of a late round or undrafted prospect,  can pass the football and either rush or receive, and on a team with an established quarterback. The NFL has a long history of versatile players. Maybe after drifting away from the utility player the success of Taysom Hill may get teams thinking about incorporating a utility player in some plays.


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