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It’s not flashy, but the signing of FB Michael Burton has value

A fullback article?! Yes, a fullback article.

Washington Redskins v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

One of the things I love most about New Orleans Saints fans is that they know their team’s roster from one to 53 (or 55 now). For instance, last season the big concerns for this roster outside of wide receiver were the number three running back and tight end. This is a fanbase that cares passionately about their home team and shares a unique connection between community and club.

Another such example is the Saints fan’s understanding of the fullback position. A position that looked like it might be on the verge of extinction not too long ago. However, the preservation of the fullback can be credited to a few teams in the league. The Saints are certainly a part of that group along with San Francisco, Minnesota, Baltimore, and New England.

The recently signed Michael Burton could be the next to answer the call-to-action in New Orleans and help keep the position afloat. Burton returns to New Orleans on a one-year deal after spending time with the Saints last offseason and preseason. Ultimately, he was simply brought in to serve as the second team’s FB until roster cuts were imminent. At which time, Zach Line assumed his role as the lone fullback on the roster.

Looking just at starter Zach Line’s production from 2019, he was deployed on offense for 221 snaps in the 12 games he played. That snap count alone placed Line fourth in the NFL for FB snaps. Burton took some time to talk to New Orleans media and acknowledged exactly that as a reason he is excited to return to the Saints.

When Zach Line went down with injury, the Saints turned to Jason Vander Laan and then eventually Ricky Ortiz to fill the void at FB. Taysom and Josh Hill even saw a handful of snaps at the position. Fullback was so important to this offense’s scheme that as opposed to ditching it when their lead guy was hurt, they went out and signed replacements. That should be no surprise watching the offense.

Sean Payton’s system has many alignments for the fullback, not just limited to backfield alignment. Remember this interception? Yeah, that did not work out well, but the targeted receiver there was a downfield Zach Line who lined up out wide. This could have something to do with the struggle the Saints were having at WR, but hard to believe anyone thought lining up a fullback on the perimeter would be the solution. This is part of what Payton does, scheme players all over the field and create mismatches for stars like Michael Thomas who can line up in the slot and force coverage from a linebacker or undersized corner.

Line took 26 snaps out wide in 2019 and 20 in 2018. He also grabbed a few snaps in the slot and, of course, running routes out of the backfield. With Line retired, Burton joins Ortiz on the roster with potential to assume a vital starting role in both the run and passing game.

Look back at John Kuhn in the 2016 season. Not only was he, like Line, used as a consistently successful lead blocker, but also in the short passing game. That season he caught at least one pass in 10 of 16 games including six weeks in a row. The big fella in the backfield is not limited to simply run and pass protection, he must also be a reliable option as a safety valve out of the backfield, especially in short yardage situations.

While he’ll face some keen competition in Ortiz, Burton has shown an ability to catch out of the backfield in the few chances he has been given in the passing game. That should help him fit right in.

Beyond what he can do on offense, Burton has also proven effective in special teams as well. Lining up as the wing in punt coverage, he piled up five special teams tackles last year for Washington. If we have learned anything about the Saints over the years, it is that being of value on special teams will help solidify your road to the roster. This might be what helps to separate him from Ortiz who also saw punt coverage snaps in the Week 17 and Wildcard games last year. Burton though scored an 80.5 PFF grade on 177 special team snaps.

Safe to say I never expected to write nearly 1,000 words about a fullback before, but in the Saints offense, it finds warrant. This is not an offense where any player like Burton would be limited to special teams snaps or emergency duty. In this system, he would be asked to do a lot. Run routes out of the backfield, potentially line up wide to help scheme mismatches, be a gritty lead blocker, maintain that special teams prowess, and more mastermind trick I could never think up.

So far there is promise that Burton can live up to those expectations and find ways to serve the team in multiple, important ways. Whether the plan is to catch a five yard angle route up the middle for a touchdown, pound through the line on third and short, stonewall a blitzing linebacker, barrel his way through would-be tacklers in pursuit of Alvin Kamara, or even to run a FB option there is real impact in this position in New Orleans. Burton now gets his next shot at that role.