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Lions free agent profile: Is the fullback position dead?

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By: Jeremy Reisman

Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

Have the Detroit Lions chosen to move on from Jason Cabinda and the fullback position?

The Detroit Lions have a long history of fullbacks. For years, Cory Schlesinger was one of the most popular players on the franchise. Players like Jerome Felton, Jed Collins, Nick Bellore, and Nick Bawden all had short-but-memorable stints with Detroit.

The latest to hold the honored fullback position is Jason Cabinda, a converted linebacker who has been with the team since 2019 and has taken fullback reps in each of the past four seasons.

But with Cabinda’s contract up and a dwindling fullback role in this offense, is it time to move on? Let’s take a look in our latest installment of our free agent profile series.

Here’s a look at our previously written free agent profiles: QB Nate Sudfeld, TE Zach Ertz, WR Josh Reynolds, OG Graham Glasgow, OG Halapoulivaati Vaitai, OG Jonah Jackson, OT Dan Skipper. EDGE Romeo Okwara, DT Tyson Alualu, CB Emmanuel Moseley. CB Will Harris, WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, and K Michael Badgley.

Jason Cabinda

Expectations heading into 2023

Cabinda missed most of the 2022 season with an injury, and while he was heading into 2023 unopposed for the fullback position, many understandably wondered if he services were really still needed. In last year’s roster review, we had a nearly identical headline, wondering if this team still had a role for Cabinda.

Ultimately, Cabinda had a big enough role on special teams and a unique enough skillset that I believed he would make the team, but admitted his cap hit (over $2.5 million) made him a potential cut.

Actual role in 2023

Note: PFF grades combine regular season and playoffs and reflect a minimum 20% snaps at that position

Regular season — 4 games (0 starts):

  • 31 offensive snaps
  • 74 special teams snaps — 4 tackles

Postseason — 3 games (0 starts))

  • 25 offensive snaps — 1 catch, 0 yards
  • 64 special teams snaps

PFF offensive grade: 43.2 (did not qualify for rankings)
PFF pass blocking grade: 26.9 (DNQ
PFF run blocking grade: 51.3 (DNQ)
PFF special teams grade: 71.0 (DNQ)

Cabinda made the initial 53-man roster, as predicted, but he almost immediately suffered an injury. After three games of modest use on offense and heavy use on special teams, Cabinda went to injured reserve with a lingering knee injury.

The fullback would return for the team’s regular season finale and play all three postseason games. However, Detroit made a key roster move involving Cabinda over that time. Immediately upon activating Cabinda from injured reserve, they waived him, then stashed him on the practice squad after clearing waivers.

The Lions were in desperate need for 53-man roster spots to activate C.J. Gardner-Johnson and James Houston, and Cabinda was deemed worth risking on waivers to do so.

In the playoffs, Cabinda was a game-day elevation for all three games, but almost exclusively as a special teamer. But he played a lot on special teams, because Detroit clearly values his contributions there.

Still, it’s hard to ignore how small of a role Cabinda has been limited to on offense over the past few years. Here’s a look at his average offensive snaps per game played by year:

2020: 8.1
2021: 10.1
2022: 13.0
2023: 7.8

Outlook for 2024

Contract status: Street free agent

A key part to Detroit keeping Cabinda on the practice squad means that his contract immediately expired after the end of the season. The Lions could have signed him to a futures deal—which is typically a veteran-minimum type of contract—but they did not. Cabinda is currently able to sign with any team he likes.

The case for keeping Cabinda

The Lions value special teams, and Cabinda is a four-phase player. He also has a lot of people in the building who are big fans of his attitude and leadership. He’s also a great member of the local community, often lending his hand to Detroit’s charitable events.

Detroit is a team that values high-character players who can contribute on special teams, and Cabinda can do both. He’ll also likely be a pretty affordable re-signing.

The case for letting Cabinda walk:

Cabinda has dealt with serious injuries in each of the past two years. A botched surgery cost him most of 2022, and a knee cartilage issue sat him for most of 2023.

Plus, as pointed out before, the Lions don’t require that much use out of the fullback position. In fact, a guy like Malcolm Rodriguez could follow in Cabinda’s footsteps, moving from linebacker to fullback. The second-year linebacker did step in a few times during 2023 to play fullback, and didn’t look too out of place. Rodriguez even making an impressive 6-yard catch on a total of 20 offensive snaps this year. Rodriguez brings the same capabilities on special teams and comes on a cost-controlled rookie contract for the next two seasons. With an entire season to practice fullback, the Lions could just go in that direction—although Rodriguez also continues to prove his worth as a depth linebacker.

Is there interest from both sides?

We know for certain that Cabinda wants to come back. During Super Bowl week, he joined a Raiders radio show and when asked which team he’d like to sign with, he immediately said he wants to be back in Detroit.

“Ain’t nobody I’d rather play for right now than the Detroit Lions and Dan Campbell,” Cabinda said. “That’s for damn sure.”

But if the Lions opted not to sign Cabinda to a futures deal, that means one of two things: either Cabinda wasn’t willing to sign a small contract with Detroit or the Lions have no intention on bringing him back. Either way, it’s not currently looking great for the two sides to reunite for 2024.

Originally posted on Pride Of Detroit