Seventh in a daily series looking at the Green Bay Packers' free agents in advance of the start of the 2016 league year March 9.
The fullback position isn’t going anywhere, at least not in Green Bay.
The Packers and coach Mike McCarthy reinforced the importance of the position in the offense last offseason when they not only brought back veteran John Kuhn on a one-year deal, but also drafted Oklahoma’s Aaron Ripkowski in the sixth round.
Green Bay was one of the few NFL teams that carried two natural fullbacks on its 53-man roster all season, with the 33-year-old Kuhn again serving as the starter and Ripkowski carving out a steady role on special teams (he tied for fourth with nine coverage tackles, according to the coaches’ statistics).
But will the Packers have room for both next season? Asked during a side session with reporters at the NFL combine about Ripkowski’s upside, McCarthy didn’t seem to have any qualms about going heavy at fullback again in 2016.
“I’d like to see Rip take a big step with the offense," McCarthy said. "He needs to get the details down. I thought he was a good special-teams player for us and he definitely can be one of our core players. For a fullback with his size and the way he’s built, he did a really good job with open-field tackling. I was impressed with a number of things that he did.
“The ability to be on the punt team and just become that core guy on special teams, but also compete with John Kuhn to play more on offense.”
McCarthy foreshadowing Kuhn’s possible return for a 10th season in Green Bay is interesting when you consider he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent again next week. Kuhn, who turns 34 in September, has returned to the Packers in each of the last two offseasons on one-year deals.
Kuhn’s agent, Kevin Gold, spoke with the Packers at the NFL scouting combine last week and there is mutual interest about Kuhn returning. It’s pretty easy to see why based on how often Kuhn was utilized in the offense after McCarthy resumed offensive play-calling duties in the last month of the season.
Like 2014, Kuhn’s value to the offense escalated during the final stretch of the year. More than half of Kuhn’s total offensive snaps (222 out of 362) came in the final six games after McCarthy resumed play-calling duties in Week 13 against Dallas.
In fact, his workload more than tripled from 11.7 to 37 offensive snaps per game down the stretch en route to Kuhn earning his fourth trip to the Pro Bowl. Kuhn’s knowledge of the offense rivals that of any player on the roster. The respect he has earned in the locker room was reflected in his being elected a playoff captain for the first time in his career.
Money won’t be factor, though it may take time before Kuhn is re-signed. It wasn't until April 13 last year that the 6-foot, 250-pound fullback re-signed for the veteran minimum of $870,000, in addition to a $25,000 workout and Pro Bowl bonuses.
A few weeks later, the Packers also began looking to the future. After bringing in Ripkowski for a pre-draft visit, the Packers liked the 6-foot-1, 246-pound fullback enough to use a draft pick on him rather than gambling on him being available as an undrafted free agent. He’s a heavy hitter and could be the run-blocking bull the offense needs in years to come.
Ripkowski said last season that it was invaluable to job shadow Kuhn last season. In the coming weeks, it’s up to general manager Ted Thompson to decide whether Kuhn will factor into the Packers' plans again in 2016.
John Kuhn, 11th-year fullback
The skinny: Unrestricted free agent.
The snaps: 536 total (362 offense, 174 special teams).
The stats: Nine carries for 28 yards, six catches for 56 yards and two touchdowns
2015 salary: $920,000