Cleveland Browns: Opportunity knocking for Dan Vitale

Jul 30, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Dan Vitale (86) runs with the ball as Buccaneers cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (28) defends during training camp at One Buccaneer Place. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 30, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Dan Vitale (86) runs with the ball as Buccaneers cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (28) defends during training camp at One Buccaneer Place. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Cleveland Browns have many of the pieces to execute Hue Jackson’s power running scheme and Dan Vitale has an opportunity to take care of one more.

Hue Jackson has talked about how the Cleveland Browns are going to be more focused on running the ball in 2017. In addition to simply having the quarterback actually hand the ball to the backs more, the team also invested substantially in the offensive line and added more help at tight end. The one position that has been relatively quiet but has been a staple for Jackson offenses is fullback. As it stands, the Browns have one fullback in Dan Vitale and there’s a lot of potential there.

Related Story: Cleveland Browns: The Importance of Matthew Dayes

Among the moves the Browns made both at the start of the season and throughout the year, taking advantage on their place of the waiver wire, the team decided to release Malcolm Johnson and replaced him with Vitale, who had been released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Johnson was a sixth round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, one of Ray Farmer’s final picks of his tenure. Meanwhile, Vitale was a sixth round pick in 2016 by the Buccaneers.

Vitale was a fun player to watch during college career, because he was technically a fullback but he was mostly utilized as a receiving threat at H-Back. He only carried the ball six times for 29 yards. His athleticism and play making ability as a receiving threat had him dubbed the “super back”.

Vitale played four years and caught 135 passes for 1,427 yards and 11 touchdowns. In his senior year, he was actually the leading receiving threat in what was an anemic passing game catching 33 passes for 355 yards and four touchdowns, but his most productive year was as a junior when he caught 40 passes for 402 yards and a pair of scores.

Beyond simply seeing him make plays on tape, Vitale also tested extremely well.

Height: 6-0.875
Weight: 239 pounds
40-Yard Dash: 4.60s
Vertical Jump: 38.5″
Broad Jump: 10’3″
3-Cone: 7.12s
Shuttle: 4.12s
Bench Reps: 30

That’s good athleticism for a tailback, let alone a fullback. He’s got size, speed and power and the tape shows someone who can be a problem with the ball in his hands.

More from NFL Spin Zone

Enter the problem for Vitale. Despite being a fullback, he’s been a terrible blocker both in college and early in the pros. He has played fullback like someone who sees himself as a feature back and not done a good job of doing the dirty work.

The flexibility the Browns had last year in terms of their roster space enabled them to grab Vitale, get him some reps last year and really try to address the issues in the off season under the guidance of running backs coach Kirby Wilson.

If Vitale can utilize his strength and power to become a reliable lead blocker, it would be a big benefit for a team that wants to be a power running team. That then opens up the play action passing game that can enable him to slip out of the backfield and cause problems as a receiver. He can become what would be a considered a true west coast fullback.

With what the Browns already have up front, especially on the right side with Kevin Zeitler and presumably Shon Coleman, the Browns have powerful, earth-moving type players. The hope is that they can get David Njoku to become an effective blocker inline at the Y, but Randall Telfer has done well when healthy. At that point, Jackson can line up with multiple tight ends and Vitale at fullback and dare opponents to stop him from running the ball.

With the NFL’s shift to smaller, lighter players that can run and cover, a few teams are taking advantage by going bigger and with more power, attempting to exploit it. The Cincinnati Bengals and Tennessee Titans are good examples of this, and the Browns appear poised to follow suit. Rather than allow a player like Ryan Shazier of the Pittsburgh Steelers to fly around in space, this would enable the Browns to attack him, hopefully getting blockers and neutralizing him as a run defender.

More from Cleveland Browns

Going back in Jackson’s history to his time with the Oakland Raiders in 2010 as offensive coordinator and 2011 as the head coach, the goal for Vitale may be Marcel Reece. When Reece came out in the 2008 NFL Draft, he tested with faster pure speed in the 40 with a 4.42 at 231 pounds, but Vitale is better at every other test at a heavier weight. Vitale has better explosiveness, agility and raw power.

In his two seasons with Jackson, his second and third in the NFL, Reece totaled 47 carries for 234 yards, 52 receptions for 634 yards and six total touchdowns. If Vitale can become the viable blocking threat they want, he might be able to have some of the same success.

With the Cincinnati Bengals, Jackson had Ryan Hewitt as his fullback that could do a lot of dirty work and occasionally catch passes as an H-Back. Hewitt still caught 18 passes in two seasons with Jackson as offensive coordinator, but he’s nowhere near the athlete that Vitale is. Even if 18 receptions in two years is all Vitale can provide, just locking down the blocking responsibilities would be worthwhile.

Related Story: Cleveland Browns: DeShone Kizer being fast tracked?

In Jackson’s career calling plays, there has always been a desire to have someone that could be an effective fullback. It stands to reason he’s going to keep looking until he finds one. Vitale has the physical talent to be special in that regard and he’s obviously shown it at the collegiate level for the Wildcats as a receiving threat. Presently, he is the only true fullback on the roster. It’s a huge opportunity for Vitale, because if he can become the player Jackson hopes, there’s going to be plays for him in this offense as a playmaker, adding another dynamic to the Browns offense.