The Broncos want to get back to their winning ways in 2019. They’ve completely revamped the roster with the hopes that this combination of players makes a run at the postseason – or at least plays .500 football or better.
This roster is full of talented players on both sides of the ball, but there are questions that need to be answered during training camp. In this series on 1043TheFan.com, we will go through each position group searching for those answers.
This is the latest part in our Training Camp Preview. Today, we’ll take a deep dive on the fullback position.
Starter: Andy Janovich
There is more to Andy Janovich’s game than we’ve seen in his Broncos career. A sixth-round pick out of Nebraska in the 2016 NFL Draft, Janovich has mostly been a special teams standout with the Broncos. He’s what coaches call a “four-phaser” on special teams because Janovich can play punt team, kickoff team, punt return team and kickoff return team.
In 43 games with the Broncos, Janovich has played roughly 200 snaps per year on offense. The Broncos haven’t used him on offense that much as they mostly feature his work as a blocker. Janovich has only 12 carries for 50 yards, two rushing touchdowns, 17 catches for 191 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown in his pro career.
It might be time to see what Janovich can do with a larger role.
Things are shaping up for Janovich to be much more involved on offense in 2019 with the hiring of offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello. Last year, when he was the 49ers quarterbacks coach, Scangarello was on a staff that used two-back sets more than any other team in the league. 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk played 662 snaps on offense, running the ball eight times for 30 yards, but catching 30 passes for 324 receiving yards and one touchdown. Cleary, Scangarello knows the value of a pass-catching fullback in this Mike Shanahan / Gary Kubiak offense and that opportunity is likely to go to Janovich in 2019.
It’s a good time to get more playing time if you’re Janovich. He’s in the final year of his rookie contract and has a cap hit of just a little over $761,000 in 2019. When Juszczyk became a free agent in 2017, the 49ers made him the highest-paid fullback in the league with an annual average salary of $5.25 million. If he shows that he can produce in a similar fashion to Juszczyk, then Janovich could be in for a big pay raise in 2020.
We also have to examine the previous working relationship Broncos starting quarterback Joe Flacco had with Juszczyk when they were both with the Ravens. In 2016, Juszczyk’s last year with Baltimore, Flacco targeted the big fullback 49 times and Juszczyk caught 37 passes for 266 yards. It wouldn’t be crazy to project those type of receiving numbers for Janovich in 2019.
Janovich has a healthy 11.2 yards-per-reception average during his career and he’s coming off a career-best 14.0 yards-per-reception average in 2018. He’s not as proven as Juszczyk when it comes to receiving (only 17 career catches), but he’s had limited chances to showcase that part of his skill set.
Janovich might be a better runner than some give him credit for too.
The first carry of his pro career was a memorable one. In Week 1 of the 2016 season, the Broncos had a rematch of Super Bowl 50 with the Carolina Panthers coming to town. Janovich took a third-and-one handoff 28 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter of what would go on to be a Broncos win. It seemed like maybe Janovich could get some more opportunity as a short-yardage and goal line back after that game – then Janovich only got three more carries during his rookie season. It could be time to give him the rock just a bit more in certain situations.
Broncos fans know how important Janovich will be as a special teams player and as a blocker in 2019. He will help lead the way for a rushing attack featuring two exciting backs in Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. With the defense likely being elite again, the Broncos should be able to run the ball early and often in close contests. That means Janovich is going to be mostly tasked with crashing into defenders to clear a path, but this might finally be the season we see if he can be more.
Reserve: George Aston
The Broncos do have some competition for Janovich in undrafted rookie George Aston. During his college career at Pittsburgh, Aston gained a cult-like following and was often described as the Panthers favorite “monster” on the football team. He was a fan favorite in college because of his hard-nosed style, but also because of the fact he has an incredibly huge neck.
Pretty sure George Aston is who James Harrison sees in his nightmares pic.twitter.com/5q1Nn8sLeQ
— Steve Rotstein (@SteveRotstein) November 17, 2018
Pitt fans know that Aston has underrated athleticism, and Broncos fans should soon see that too. Aston is what scouts call “country strong” and known to fire at defenders with a ferocious charge. He had 10 combined touchdowns (five rushing, five receiving) in 2016 and certainly showed off his nose for the end zone in the best season of his collegiate career.
Ankle injuries knocked him out of most of the 2017 for the Panthers, but Aston was able to come back strong for the 2018 season. He helped pave the way for two thousand-yard rushers for the Panthers in 2018 with his bruising style. He finished his college career at Pitt with 28 carries for 85 yards and six rushing touchdowns. Aston also contributed with 45 receptions for 277 yards and eight receiving touchdowns.
Measuring in at 6-feet, 240 pounds, Aston is a menacing presence on the field. A converted linebacker, Aston brings that aggressive mindset to the offensive side of the ball. Instead of going to tackle ball-carriers, Aston instead hunts linebackers to get them out of the way for his back. Aston is also big enough and nasty enough to challenge any defensive lineman that gets in his way too.
Aston is a throwback player with an old-school mentality that is all about taking away the will of your opponent. He is as no-nonsense as they come and known as a great teammate and coachable player. Aston may have “FB” next to his name, but he could really be considered more of an H-back because he can line up all over the backfield.
Sure, he can lead a power-I formation in front of the running back, but Aston can also line up on the edge and run to the flat for a pass. That versatility is something the Broncos should one day take advantage of.
No team in the NFL carries two fullbacks, so it’s going to be difficult for Aston to make the 53-man roster. I think it’s best to project Aston for the practice squad where he can get a year of experience working at the professional level with the intent that he could be a starter in the near future – perhaps as soon as 2020.
The Broncos are going to be one of the rare teams in the NFL that uses a fullback in 2019. As one of the most run-heavy teams in the league, Denver’s starting fullback is going to have a lot of responsibility as a lead blocker.
Janovich should be the starter even though he will compete with Aston for that spot in training camp. I’d like to see Aston stick around on the team’s practice squad, so he could perhaps be Janovich’s replacement if the veteran moves on in free agency next year.
While Janovich is known as a strong blocker, we should see him play more snaps on offense this year – and perhaps he will get used more as a runner or receiver out of the backfield. Even a slight improvement in his offensive numbers would be big. Janovich might end up playing twice as many snaps on offense in 2019 that he did in 2018, and that won’t just to be a blocker exclusively.
In this Broncos offense, the fullback has many responsibilities that go beyond just blocking. In a contract season this year, Janovich should get plenty of opportunity he can be much more than a battering ram.
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