BETHLEHEM, Pa. - A fullback has been a staple on the Eagles' depth chart, used to represent a spot in the base offense. But because that offense is seldom basic, there is a slight chance the position will disappear this season.
The Eagles used fullback Owen Schmitt on just 15.8 percent of their offensive snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and passed on re-signing the veteran. They neither signed an established fullback nor selected one in the draft.
Three fullbacks are in training camp: Stanley Havili, a 2011 seventh-round pick who learned the Eagles' system last season on the practice squad; Emil Igwenagu, an undrafted rookie out of Massachusetts who is versatile enough that he has been playing tight end in Brent Celek's absence; and Jeremy Stewart, an undrafted rookie who played running back at Stanford.
The good news for the three fullbacks is that the competition is seemingly wide open without a single player with NFL game experience. The bad news is that there's a possibility the Eagles might not carry one at all.
"I'm not going to get into personnel decisions so early; those typically will work themselves out as we progress in camp," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "There aren't many true fullbacks left in this league. We typically have one, because they're very valuable with the things that we do. Special teams count for that particular type of player, normally."
Mornhinweg said Havili is leading the group now, which could be expected given his experience in the system.
Mornhinweg said fullback has "normally been a vital position for us."
Two years ago, the Eagles made Leonard Weaver one of the highest-paid fullbacks in NFL history. He served in a hybrid role. Many other teams use more one-back offenses, which de-emphasize fullbacks. The Eagles still have formations with two runners in the backfield, but they want the player to help in other ways.
"First of all with the blocking, second with the pass receiving, just like the receiver would adjust to routes and catch the football," Mornhinweg said. "Special teams will be important for that position as well."
Neither Havili nor Igwenagu expressed concern about the position's status as an endangered species in the NFL. Havili might feel different if he was elsewhere. The New England Patriots didn't carry a traditional fullback on their roster last season, although they signed two veterans during the offseason.
"I'm not too worried about that, especially with this offense," Havili said. "They use a fullback in this offense. Last year, they might not have used Owen a lot, but they use us in this offense."
The Eagles practices show that they have plays that require someone in the fullback spot. The question is whether the Eagles think they could use a backup tight end in that role, or whether it requires an actual fullback. But just like the tight end would argue they could fill the fullback spot, the fullbacks believe they can help in other areas.
"I could run the ball. I could play running back," Havili said. "And I could catch the ball as well. I feel I could make plays with the ball in my hand."
When Mornhinweg spoke about the position's role in the NFL, he mentioned how teams like a player who can swing between tight end and fullback. That versatility becomes especially important when final roster decisions are made and a team can feel satisfied about depth at two different positions. Though one could consider it off-putting that the Eagles asked Igwenagu to move to tight end with Celek absent, Igwenagu did not consider the move that way, and it could actually prove beneficial in his effort to make the team.
"I did that in college," Igwenagu said. "But obviously, this is the National Football League. So I'm trying to get adjusted to that. I'm trying to get adjusted to the playbook, as well."
The Eagles have had a fullback every year under coach Andy Reid, so not having one would be a distinct change. Mornhinweg touted the position's role in the offense this week - but he stopped short of making a full commitment.
"That is an important position, usually, for our football team," Mornhinweg said.
He emphasized "usually."