While not worthy of much attention nationally, the Raiders recently made a move that raised a few eyebrows here in San Diego. Last week, the Raiders and their "Commitment To Geriatrics" signed fullback Lorenzo Neal. At first glance, it’s easy to write this one off as a bad team signing another over-the-hill player. In my opinion, I think this signing could actually be more ammunition for the "AJ Smith is out-of-touch" crowd.
Now don’t get me wrong. Are the Raiders going to shock the world and win the AFC West? Heck no. They’ll be competing with the Denver Broncos for last place in a weak division. But on a team with three strong running backs, Neal could be just what the Raiders need to start turning things around on offense. And facing him twice a year, watching him consistently hitting his blocks… Well, let’s just hope that the big guy really has lost a step or three.
In letting Neal walk after the 2007 season, it was assumed that any decent fullback could fill his aging Pro Bowl shoes. Jacob Hester, a RB/FB, was drafted soon after. And after an impressive camp, undrafted free agent Mike Tolbert was tagged as the starting fullback after injuries took Andrew Pinnock out of the running.
Tolbert’s hands were good enough to get him into games, but his blocking was another story. After too many missed blocks and too many lost opportunities for a struggling running game, it was obvious that the Bolts were missing Neal’s penchant for making the block that needed to be made. Due to injury, Hester replaced Tolbert and seemed to get better over time. But were either of those rookies as good as Neal? No, not even an over-the-hill version of him.
On a team that lost seven games by a TD or less and had a problem controlling the clock, it’s easy to see how a few extra sustained drives could have equaled a couple of extra wins. Would it have mattered in the playoffs? Who knows? But that Chargers team may have had a better chance with a better fullback making better blocks.
This is by no means a knock on Hester. I think the guy gets a bad rap because the Chargers spent too much to get him. There is a chance he could grow into an effective fullback, albeit not a Lorenzo Neal style of player. I don’t think that he’ll ever be a prototypical blocking fullback.
Last off-season, much was made about coach Norv’s preference to minimize the roll of the fullback in his offense. Now, after the dust has settled on a disappointing season, the lack of an effective fullback was one of the glaring weaknesses in an otherwise talented Chargers offense. For a position that isn’t that important it sure stands out as one position that could have made the difference offensively. As for the Raiders and their new fullback, I’m not predicting a Pro Bowl for Lo-Neal this season, but I’m not predicting one for Hester and Tolbert either. If you need a blocking fullback, who do you want in your backfield?
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