Rick Weegman column: Ham is Vikings' only option at fullback
MINNEAPOLIS -- If NFL fullbacks hadn't gone the way of plaid pants and public telephones, C.J. Ham would be feeling pretty good about his chances of making the Minnesota Vikings' opening-day roster.
MINNEAPOLIS - If NFL fullbacks hadn't gone the way of plaid pants and public telephones, C.J. Ham would be feeling pretty good about his chances of making the Minnesota Vikings' opening-day roster.
Ham, the 2011 Duluth Denfeld graduate, is the only fullback listed on the team's roster.
That's usually good job security if you are an IT specialist or a garbage man, but when you are the only person at a position rarely used anymore in the NFL, it means you're constantly on the chopping block.
But if the 5-foot-11, 235-pound Ham continues to impress blocking during his limited time in the backfield - he didn't carry the ball and caught just one pass in Sunday night's surprisingly exciting 32-31 comeback victory over the San Francisco 49ers on national TV - and continues hustling in his role on punt coverage and kick returns, the Vikings likely will make room for him on the 53-player regular-season roster.
When Adrian Peterson was toting the ball, he loved running behind fullback Jerome Felton. When Norv Turner, who left the Vikings' offensive coordinator role at midseason last year, was handling the same job with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s, he used Darryl Johnston exhaustively as a blocker and receiver.
But Peterson is gone to New Orleans, Turner passed the baton to Pat Shurmur and the league has evolved into a single-back gameplan. Head coach Mike Zimmer is a defensive-minded coach who has not committed to using a fullback as anything more than a novelty (last season's fullback, Zach Line, rushed a total of seven times), but coaches love hard workers and quick learners and Ham appears to fit that mold.
Ham, who spent the majority of the 2016 season on the practice squad, wasn't in the lineup when Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford was sacked three times in the first quarter, occasions when the Vikings would have benefitted by a fullback picking up a 49ers rusher who had blown past an ineffective offensive line.
It's that line, not at fullback, where most of the offensive questions remain. The Vikings dipped heavily into the free agency pool in the offseason, signing tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers to hefty contracts. And while the exhibition season is not the time to panic, if the line doesn't perform light years better than the 2016 group then all the trumped-up controversy over whether Sam Bradford or a healthy Teddy Bridgewater should be QB won't matter because neither will make it through the season unscathed.
Complicating matters is the uncertainty over who the offense revolves around. When Peterson roamed the backfield, the answer was obvious. Now is it Bradford, who is dealing with new tackles and several young receivers (many of whom dropped passes Sunday), or can running backs Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray become leaders in their first year on the team?
On Sunday, it was the second- and third-stringers who lifted the Vikings to victory after the first-teamers failed to score in the first half.
But don't expect quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who culminated the Vikings' double-digit comeback win with a two-point conversion run on the final play of the game, to be doing that in the regular season.
Ham doesn't play defense, either, and the first-team stop unit seemed unusually out of position on the 49ers' first-half scoring drives. If the Vikings can't rely on their No. 1 strength - journeyman QB Brian Hoyer was 8-for-8 for 128 yards in the opening quarter - they won't be returning to U.S. Bank Stadium in January and February.
It's just the preseason, so season-ticket holders shouldn't sell their tickets on StubHub just yet, though nearly losing to the worst team in the league in 2016 doesn't bode well for the immediate future.
What they might want to skip is Thursday's preseason finale against Miami when Nos. 54-90 on the Vikings roster are bound to see plenty of playing time.
That's a game that may serve Ham more if he stays on the sideline during offensive possessions. That likely would ensure him of making the roster when final cutdowns are announced Saturday.