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Raiders Battle: Jakob Johnson vs. Sutton Smith

The fullback position will come down to a familiar Patriots’ face for McDaniels or a relative new one

Trial training at Stuttgart Surge - Johnson
Raiders fullback Jakob Johnson, who will wear No. 45 for Las Vegas and seen here during an American football clinic in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Ludwigsburg in April, has the edge to win the starting gig.
Photo by Thomas Kienzle/picture alliance via Getty Images

Once Jakob Johnson didn’t receive a restricted free agent tender from the New England Patriots, there was only one logical spot where the fullback would end up: With the Las Vegas Raiders. In turn, when the Silver & Black didn’t tender their own in-house restricted free agent fullback Alec Ingold, Johnson’s arrival in the desert was only a matter of time.

Thus, the 6-foot-3, 255-pound sledgehammer-type blocking fullback — who was in that role when new Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels was the play caller in New England — is the favorite to claim the role in Las Vegas. Johnson joins a cast of free agents who’ve become Raiders to rejoin McDaniels.

“Look, the opportunities that we had to add a few players that you have some familiarity with, that never hurts,” the Raiders coach said back in March, the same month Johnson officially became a member of the Silver & Black.

While it’s still unclear exactly why Las Vegas allowed Ingold to walk in free agency — he did tear an ACL last season but was said to be well on the mend and has since joined the Miami Dolphins — the decision wasn’t a popular one amongst Raider Nation. Ingold was a team captain and provided the pathfinder as a blocker and surprisingly athletic pass catcher out of the backfield. And who could forget former head coach and play caller Jon Gruden dialing up the fullback dive to Ingold a number of times during his tenure.

While no precise reason was given, Johnson’s exodus from New England was simple: According to the fullback, the Patriots weren’t going to have the position on the roster going forward. Seems the fullback spot was only needed by the Patriots when McDaniels was the offensive coordinator.

This much is clear though: Johnson is a much more physically imposing presence at the fullback position over Ingold (6-foot-1, 240 pounds). What the Raiders lose in pass-catching fullback who can leap over defenders, they gain a bulldozer and hardnosed blocker who can open lanes in the run game and keep the quarterback protected if Johnson’s tasked with pass protection. And that’s what Johnson will be tasked to do: Block.

The competition for the Patriot-turned-Raider is incumbent Sutton Smith. A collegiate defensive end who became a pro fullback after dabbling in linebacker didn’t fare too well, the 6-foot, 235-pound Smith played in eight games for Las Vegas after Ingold was lost for the year. He didn’t have quite the snap count his predecessor saw (44 snaps on offense; 8 percent of the Raiders offensive snaps and 77 special teams snaps; 34 percent of that groups total workload).

While Smith is even smaller than Ingold, he does offer the versatility both McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler often speak about. He was a collegiate defender then an NFL linebacker before crossing the lines and becoming a fullback.

Las Vegas Raiders v Indianapolis Colts
Sutton Smith took over at fullback for the Raiders when starter Alec Ingold was lost with a knee injury.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

But if you’re a betting person, smart money is on Johnson assuming the mantle he had when he was McDaniels’ lead blocker in New England. McDaniels, like Gruden, was one of the few offensive-minded coaches in the league to deploy the fullback position in the NFL. Johnson is accustomed to how McDaniels deploys the position and is well-versed in the offense being installed in Las Vegas.

The University of Tennessee-product has no qualms being the battering ram that paves the way for running backs. He’s also adept at playing special teams, too. While the position is nearly extinct amongst the majority of NFL teams, McDaniels used Johnson often. In his three seasons in New England, Johnson totaled 754 snaps on offense and 384 on special teams. This past season he played in 310 offensive snaps (28 percent) and 191 special teams snaps (44 percent). In 2020, Johnson totaled 373 snaps on offense (37 percent) and 170 on special teams (43 percent).

With Ziegler and McDaniels investing resources (money and draft picks) into the running back position (signing Brandon Bolden and Ameer Abdullah in free agency and drafting Zamir White and Brittain Brown) to go along with incumbents Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake and a recommitment and dedication to the run game is on the horizon for the 2022 season.

That plays more into Johnson’s skillset. He’s got the body and physicality to sustain the pounding the position will take and he’s got the experience in the system. However, don’t discount Smith’s ability to compete in offseason team activities (OTAs) and upcoming camps. Both the Raiders head coach and general manager are big on competition improving everyone on the roster and a competition at fullback helps both Jakobs and Smith.