Ripkowski drafted to help fix special teams
The Green Bay Packers' head-scratcher pick of last weekend's NFL draft probably was fullback Aaron Ripkowski.
It came in the sixth round, late enough so that any pick can't be a total surprise. But it still felt a little offbeat, because fullback is a dying position in the NFL.
Based on the depth charts at Ourlads.com, barely more than half of the league (18 teams) has a fullback on its roster, and that's now, when teams are allowed to carry 90 players. Who knows how many fewer won't have a fullback when the rosters are cut to 53 at the end of training camp?
That declining value also means you don't have to draft a fullback to find a competent one. Over the past five drafts, only 15 fullbacks have been selected, an average of three a year.
In fact, the Packers hadn't drafted one since Quinn Johnson in 2009, and they haven't had multiple fullbacks on their roster since '10, when they shockingly kept three (John Kuhn, Johnson and Korey Hall). Since then, the only fullbacks they've brought in to compete with Kuhn have been undrafted and street free agents, and none has won a spot on the final 53.
So why draft Ripkowski?
Kuhn's age no doubt was a factor. He'll be 33 in September and could go downhill at any time. Coach Mike McCarthy obviously still has a place for a run- and pass-blocking fullback in his offense.
But special teams had to have played a huge role as well. The Packers last season finished No. 32 in The Dallas Morning News' special teams rankings that are based on a composite finish in 22 statistical categories. That and two huge mistakes in the NFC championship game cost Shawn Slocum his job as special teams coach in the offseason.
Drafting Ripkowski is a sign that general manager Ted Thompson wants some new, younger and cheaper core special teams players as well. It smacks of his drafting tight end Ryan Taylor in the seventh round in 2011 and Hall in 2007. Thompson picked both more for their play on special teams than on offense.
Ripkowski won't offer anything this season like Kuhn can as a pass protector. Kuhn has played in this offense longer than anyone on the roster other than Aaron Rodgers and knows it nearly as well. That alone leaves open the possibility that both Kuhn and Ripkowski could make the final roster, especially because the Packers aren't deep at halfback and tight end, the two positions competing for roster spots with fullbacks.
What Ripkowski provides is athleticism on special teams that Kuhn no longer has. At age 22, Ripkowski at his Pro Day workout at the University of Oklahoma reportedly ran the 40 in 4.71 seconds and 4.69 seconds, and had a 33-inch vertical jump. When Kuhn came out of Shippensburg his 40 was in the 4.8s and no doubt is noticeably slower now after 10 years in the league.
One surprising stat on Kuhn from last season: He played on only 20.2 percent of the Packers' special teams snaps, which ranked 18th not counting the three specialists. If Ripkowski makes the roster, you can bet he'll play a lot more than that on punts and kicks.
At Oklahoma, Ripkowski played special teams all four years. He was full-time as a wedge blocker on kickoff returns and in field-goal protection. He played part time on kickoff coverage, punt return and punt coverage. He was a linebacker in high school in Dayton, Texas, so he's tackled.
"Tackling is not an issue here," he said after the Packers' first rookie minicamp practice Friday. "I'm not afraid to tackle anybody, and they've seen that on film."
Ripkowski was a walk-on at Oklahoma whose only scholarship offer coming out of high school was from Navy. His family has a strong military history and he badly wanted to go there — 12 of his paternal grandfather's brothers served in various branches of the military dating to World War II.
But the United States still was in the middle of long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at the time Ripkowski picked a college, so his parents asked him to accept Oklahoma's invite to walk on to its football team instead.
"No parents want to see their kids go war," Ripkowski said.
Oklahoma moved Ripkowski from linebacker to fullback because the coaching staff had seen him in a high school summer contact camp and liked his low pad level and footwork in collisions. He played special teams early in his true freshman season and by late in the year had worked his way onto the field in short-yardage packages.
In 2012 and '13, he was a special teams core player and shared playing time with Trey Millard, who was a seventh-round pick with San Francisco last season. And last year he caught seven passes and ran for three short touchdowns as Oklahoma's primary fullback.
But if Ripkowski makes the Packers' roster this season, he might never touch the ball. If he wins a job, it will mainly be because he can bring something more to their special teams.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty