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Zach Fulton film study: Is he really as bad as last season would indicate?

We break down Fulton’s play in 2020 to find out

Houston Texans v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

The New York Giants added former Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs interior offensive linemen Zach Fulton to the team early on Thursday. Fulton is an experienced veteran with 90 career starts, 7 in the postseason, to go along with his career 6,201 snaps played. He has significant work at both guard positions and center, while also taking snaps at tackle.

The 29-year-old had a 2020 season to forget - as did all Houston Texans. Fulton had his worst season by far. The 6-foot-, 321-pound Fulton played 953 snaps at right guard, allowing 39 pressures and 11 sacks. In the other six seasons of his career, he’s allowed only 15 sacks total. In 2020, he gave up the second-most pressures at the guard position and was credited with the most sacks allowed, according to Pro Football Focus. To better understand the sacks, let’s go through each one:

(Zach Fulton is No. 73 at right guard)

2020 sacks

This is Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs - the first game of the 2020 season. Fulton gets flat out beat by Chris Jones’ (95) power. Jones shocks and extends, putting Fulton on skates and sending his center of gravity upward. Then Jones explodes through his hips before quickly grabbing cloth and using his upper body force to pull Fulton’s momentum downward. This is called a push-pull move, and Jones tags the move with an outside swim to fully disengage from Fulton. The guard flat out just loses in this one-on-one situation.

Matt Judon (99) is sugaring the A-gap, which forces the interior offensive line to pay respects pre-snap. Both Judon and the 4i-Technique bail and Derek Wolfe (95) slants to Fulton’s outside shoulder at the snap, from the nose position. Fulton is late to recognize and pick up Wolfe, who puts himself into a good position to automatically earn the half-man relationship. Wolfe dips the inside shoulder, wins the pad level battle, and turns through contact to get around Fulton and sack DeShaun Watson (4).

In this sack, it looks as if Fulton expected center Nick Martin (66) to be there against the 3i-Technique with the next closest defender on the line of scrimmage being, essentially, a 4i-Technique to the opposite side. Fulton sets up outside and Stephon Tuitt (91) goes inside with a very nice and powerful (we can glean that) club swim combination. Still not an excuse, but that could be the reality here.

This is a well-executed stunt with a blitzing linebacker swinging to the opposite A-Gap. Fulton is expecting a transition with his tackle on the 5-Technique, but the transition is with Martin - it doesn’t go well as the penetrator takes Fulton out and ends up getting the sack because Martin has to transition to the looper. There needs to be better awareness and communication from that side of the line.

Pro Football Focus credited this sack against Fulton, but there are multiple defenders in on Watson. Fulton does an adequate job handling the bull-rush and does well with his outside arm - reestablishing strength by adjusting and resetting his anchor. The linebacker ends up coming on the blitz to initially hit Watson, but Fulton is engaged with the 4i-Technique - hard to pin this sack solely on Fulton to be honest.

Nick Williams (97) does a great job setting Fulton up outside and using exceptional lateral agility and quickness to go back inside where there’s no help. Working these types of moves against tight fronts, with a nose, is smart by defenders, for there is no interior help. Once Williams gets that outside leg firmly planted, he explodes back inside, using his hands to further his momentum in that direction. Fulton doesn’t have the foot speed or lateral movement skills to cut that angle off; not to mention Williams is in control of Fulton’s upper body - there’s no balance and Fulton can’t engage strength because he’s panicked right off the jump.

Fulton gives up two sacks against DeForest Buckner (99) in this game. This one is rough to see, but it is Buckner and the star defensive lineman uses his length to initiate contact. This gets Fulton reaching and uncomfortable. Then Buckner stabs with his inside arm to set up a quick swim move inside. Buckner uses that outside arm to disengage from Fulton at the end of the swim. There’s a lot of speed, a lot of explosiveness, a ton of length, and a whole lot of power with a player like Buckner. This is not a one-on-one matchup an offensive coordinator wants to see.

Buckner wins here again, but this one is a bit more of a coverage sack. It really happened because Watson attempted to escape and the quarterback’s movements really gave Buckner the alley to the sack. It’s not all Fulton’s fault, albeit he was pretty far outside, leaving a lot of rush opportunity to his inside.

Khalil Mack (52) comes in hard from a wider alignment and Fulton is ready to take on the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year, but Mack is too quick, too fast, and just too good. Fulton tries to engage power a bit early and doesn’t do well absorbing Mack. He also stops moving his feet outside and Mack easily rips through the outside portion of Fulton to get to Watson for the safety.

It’s DeForest Buckner again who uses his hands so well to not allow Fulton inside hand placement. He hand fights with Fulton for a bit until Martin comes over to help. Fulton makes a mistake and goes to assist his tackle, leaving Martin one on one with Buckner - nope, don’t do that! Once he left Buckner, the former San Francisco 49er easily slid past Martin and sacked Watson.

Fulton has an issue, at times, with his ability to engage in pass protection. His drive and catch leaves a lot to be desired and he punches and lunges too often, leaving himself susceptible to these types of counter moves. This is a good example, but we see it throughout each of these sacks. We can tell in Fulton’s footwork that he’s not driving power through the ground with his post foot; he does a quick double step here, but there’s no power coming through that outside foot and then he just lunges with his top half. The block isn’t framed well and the technique could use improvement.

Pass protection

The 11 clips above are the worst of the worst for Fulton - let’s keep that in mind, but he’s not that great at pass protection. At least he wasn’t in 2020.

Here against the Packers, Fulton gets bailed out a bit by Martin. Kenny Clark (97) gets underneath Fulton and engages power with a quick bull-rush. Fulton is obviously struggling a bit with the power, but he’s aware the Martin is there to help. One thing I do like about this clip is the outside hand adjustment from Fulton. It’s subtle, but Fulton loses hand leverage right off the snap here. In order to establish dominance, he has to get back inside of Clark and separate the two handed grip that the defensive lineman had on him. Fulton does this well by breaking the outside grasp of Clark which was exacerbated by Clark himself, who was attempting to go with an inside rip move. However, Fulton senses the lateral flow and uses his outside arm to get back inside of Clark, right before Martin comes to help. Fulton getting that hand inside may have allowed him to carry Clark up the arc and provide Watson an alley to step up into, if Martin was nowhere to be found. Either way, we’d like to see a better handling of initial power, but it was a subtle solid adjustment.

Above, Fulton is able to handle the Jaleel Johnson’s (94) power. Sort of like we saw above, Fulton does a really good job adjusting his inside hand this time to get to the chest of the Johnson. In the beginning of the play, Fulton trapped Johnson’s inside hand against his own chest; Johnson adjusted and went for an overhand disengagement of Fulton’s inside arm - that worked, but Fulton then swung his inside hand underneath Johnson’s shoulder pad and established leverage with that hand. Fulton kept his feet moving, adjusted his hands well, and didn’t cave to the power on this play.

As much as I love Iowa football, Jaleel Johnson is no Chris Jones. It’s good to see Fulton handle Jones’ power here. Jones actually gets his hands back inside against Fulton here, but it’s after Fulton handled the initial contact that Jones was able to engage with. I honestly wish I saw more Fulton establishing contact and dictating these plays as a pass protector, but they’re not as prevalent in his film. He’s shown an adequate ability to readjust his hands and find ways to delay disengagement, but he doesn’t always make it easy on himself ... And when your fundamentals aren’t great, and you don’t make it easy on yourself ... you end up with reps like this against players like Chris Jones.

Fulton actually keeps his elbows tight and makes initial contact on Jones, but look at his post foot; Fulton hits the inside shoulder of Jones, then Jones uses his outside arm to create space and knock Fulton’s outside arm inside, giving Jones the half-man advantage. Fulton’s center of gravity rises and his post foot ends up coming forward because of that lack of balance. This allows Jones to easily turn the corner and get a hit on Watson. Fulton has to keep going in that set; again, there’s no drive and catch - no power coming through the ground and that post foot. There needs to be more balanced violence.

Run blocker

The Texans ran a lot of inside zone, some stretch, and even power/gap with the backside puller coming around to the five or six-hole - sound familiar?

This play is a bit more indicative of Fulton’s speed and athletic ability as a puller. Fulton kind of reminds me of Hernandez on these types of plays: he’s a bit boxy, has short choppy steps turning corners, his location skills are adequate at best. It’s not the prettiest, and it’s not as smooth as Shane Lemieux, who executes these concepts pretty well. I feel Fulton does a poor job on this clip locating the linebacker if his job is to kick him out, but he’s attacking the outside shoulder which makes me believe he felt David Johnson (31) was going to go outside. Either way, Fulton doesn’t look great on this play, but he does have some solid tape running this same concept.

Here’s a double pulling play, similar to the base run play the Giants ran in 2020, only this is out of a two-running back, split shotgun, set. Fulton is tasked to eliminate the unblocked end man on the line of scrimmage, and he does a great job locating him and pinning him inside. The defender tries to keep the rushing lane narrow, but Fulton just pins him so far inside that the continuity of the defense is compromised.

Fulton kicked out again and pulled to locate the unblocked defender on the edge. He easily gets to the outside shoulder and turns his own body to not allow the defender easy access to separate and disengage. Other players on the Texans didn’t get to their assignments, but Fulton pulled and located well here.

This run is right inside of Fulton’s block on Anthony Hitchens (53). Fulton is going to win this strength battle 10 out of 10 times, but he also looks so much more confident in his movements here. Love how he uses his inside hand to latch, attack, and turn - but this is a linebacker he’s blocking.

Here’s Fulton moving laterally while engaged in a block on a split-zone type of rushing play. Fulton steps play-side makes initial contact readjusts on contact, then gets his hands inside to control and steer. He’s got to watch that inside arm though; for a brief second, it gets high.

Fulton does a solid job on deuce combo blocks (tackle and guard). Fulton takes solid angles to the linebackers and uses good timing when separating. Above, he makes physical initial contact with his outside shoulder; he allows the tackle to fully take over the block, and then he transitions to the linebacker while sealing him away from the play-side.

Here he almost gets a free release to the linebacker, but somewhat helps with a chip. Fulton gets up to the linebacker and knocks him to the ground. There’s really no blocking upfront for Johnson, but the location ability of Fulton is solid here.

This is an ACE (guard and center combo) chip and climb from Fulton. He helps take care of the 1-Technique before climbing to the second level and squaring off with Hitchens. He gets to Hitchens as he attempts to fill and Fulton bullies him away from his responsibility. Fulton positions himself well and harasses with determination.

Final thoughts

Fulton’s 2020 tape leaves a lot to be desired, especially in pass protection. He’s not overly balanced, doesn’t play with a ton of force coming through the ground and lower body, and he doesn’t have the best anchor. He could also do a better job dictating snaps and protecting his edges. I do feel he adjusts his hands well when he can handle the power.

As a run blocker, Fulton is big and he CAN execute different rushing concepts. He’s solid in ACE and DEUCE combo situations, he’s solid at climbing and locating at the second level, and he can move laterally while engaged. His pad level and balance are an issue all around, but it doesn’t affect his run blocking ability as much as his ability to pass protect effectively. Fulton would be better as a play-side blocker in gap, but he can adequately pull when asked.

Although the tape isn’t encouraging, I still don’t mind this signing. It’s presumably very low cost and it’s a player who failed on a team that failed in 2020. I would say he’s behind Will Hernandez and Shane Lemieux as of right now, but that’s not a certainty going into the 2021 season. If Fulton can get back to his 2017 self, when he earned himself a four-year, $28 million contract with $13 million guaranteed - then we’re talking about a great addition.

He never meshed well with the Houston Texans, for whatever reason, albeit 2020 was much worse than 2018-2019. He’s still only 29 years old, has the desired measurables, and he has tons of valuable experience. If he flounders in training camp, the Giants can cut bait and it won’t hurt them. If Rob Sale, Freddie Kitchens, Pat Flaherty, Jason Garrett, and Joe Judge can unlock the player he was in the first six years of his career, and not in 2020, then it’s a win.