If the Cleveland Browns' regular season started today, their starting fullback would be an unlikely riser: undrafted free agent Ray Agnew.
In Mike Pettine's updated depth chart, the rookie from Southern Illinois is the only player listed at fullback, a critical position in Kyle Shanahan's offense.
Agnew's built like an old-school fullback – burly, compact and full of steam. The 5-foot-10, 247-pounder has been knocking into Browns defenders like a bowling ball. Unlike MarQueis Gray or Chris Ogbannaya, Agnew is a cookie-cutter version of a 1990s fullback. Lorenzo Neal and Vonta Leach were some players he looked up to.
"It's a dying breed," said Agnew of playing fullback. "A lot of people just assume fullbacks are not going to make [the roster]. Most of them don't. I take pride in still being here and being able to play at this level. Not a lot of people have fun playing the fullback position. I have a lot of fun with it."
And the coaches have started to take notice.
"There's a toughness element with him that he brings," said head coach Mike Pettine. "He's not going to back down to anybody. We did a half-line drill today. He had a lot of kick-out blocks and he wasn't afraid to stick his face in there against our guys on defense. His ability to run the ball in short yardage – I think he's shown that ability as well. He's been solid out of the backfield catching the ball. You can do some things with a traditional fullback." Although his dad, also named Ray, played 11 seasons in the NFL as a defensive lineman, Agnew has always been an underdog. Look at his Twitter handle: Underrated_FB. In high school he wanted to play tailback and score touchdowns. But the coaches converted him to linebacker and eventually fullback. When Agnew arrived at Southern Illinois, it wasn't on a scholarship. He had to earn it, just like his spot now on the Browns.
Ask Robert Griffin III or Alfred Morris who keyed their success in Washington. The first name they'll say is Kyle Shanahan. The next? Darrel Young. The Redskins' fullback is built similarly to Agnew and is regarded as one of the best zone blockers in the NFL. Young was a useful piece in the red zone, too, totaling eight touchdowns under Shanahan in four seasons.
Pettine and the Browns are still uncertain how the chips are going to fall. Will they keep two tight ends? Four running backs? Six wide receivers? All of those decisions will affect Agnew's future in Cleveland.
But for now, he's doing all the right things.
"[I'm] just hard-nosed, head-down and trying to beat the guy across from me," said Agnew. "That's my focus."
Tuesday practice report
- Pettine firmly stated that both Brian Hoyer and Duke Johnson Jr. will receive first-team repetitions against the Redskins.
- "Johnny's going to get reps with the ones," said Pettine. "Just to me, the factor of starting the game I think is a little bit overblown in this situation because we're going to try to balance the reps with the ones in the game. I don't think it was anything. Brian came in ahead. It's a little overrated on who trots out there for the first time."
- Hoyer had an above average day working with the second-unit, but again, the defense has a stranglehold on the orange jersey competition. The unit snuffed out a reverse on a fourth-down play at the end of practice to secure the victory.
- Charles Johnson was the player on offense who stood out the most on Tuesday. The rust the receiver felt coming off his ACL injury appears to be falling off in clumps. He's competing with undrafted receivers Taylor Gabriel and Willie Snead for snaps. If all the practice tape and preseason games are fair between the three, Johnson's 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame might win out.
- "He is starting to get a little more consistent," said Pettine of Johnson. "I think in the beginning, he was a little inconsistent. He's starting to show improvement."
- Pettine was not surprised to hear that the Browns-Lions game was the highest rated preseason game in NFL Network history.
- "It's not a surprise to hear that," said Pettine. "I think the phenomenon [of Manziel] still surprises all of us. We want attention on this team because we're a good football team and we're winning games. It's nice to have the media attention here, but we want to get to the point where it's for the right reasons."
- Justin Gilbert was disappointed not to play last Saturday in Detroit. But he won't lie: seeing the tempo of an NFL game wearing shorts and a t-shirt might help him.
- "It was tough," said the rookie cornerback. "But it gave me a good feel being on the sidelines seeing the guys I've been practicing with finally get in live action. Hopefully next week I'll be out there with them. "