Three years ago, Jerome Felton was 9 yards from history. That’s how his brain is wired. He lives through his running backs.
Inside the Metrodome, in Week 17 of 2012, Adrian Peterson nearly set the NFL rushing record.
So now, here with the Buffalo Bills, Felton sees unfinished business. He believes LeSean McCoy will make Eric Dickerson sweat.
“I want him to break records,” Felton said. “I want him to get 2,000 yards. I want him to lead the league in rushing. Him and Adrian are cut from the same cloth. I would be very disappointed if he’s not the leading rusher in the league next year, that’s for sure.”
But 2,000? Only seven players – ever – have reached that mark.
“Why not?” Felton said. “He has the ability that it takes. For a runner to get 2,000 yards, you have to be able to score from anywhere on the field. That’s my goal for him.”
Felton is the forgotten signing, the one who inked a four-year, $9.2 million deal to serve as McCoy’s lead blocker. His position is going extinct elsewhere – but not in Buffalo where Rex Ryan plans on building a run-first operation. Heading into his eighth season, Felton is a survivor. He’s been cut. He’s been arrested. He’s been rushed to the hospital. He’s proving that, yes, teams should still carry a fullback.
Friends tell Felton, 29, he should be long gone by now.
“I’m still hanging, still going strong,” said Felton with a chuckle. “I honestly feel like my best football is still ahead of me. In this offense, I have a great opportunity to show that.
“I don’t let other people outwork me.”
Start with the 0-16 Detroit Lions. That miserable 2008 season was Felton’s first in the league.
The entire coaching staff was fired, he spent two years with a new staff and then entered a do-or-die training camp. Felton trained like a maniac for that 2011 season, like never before. Then, without warning, his position disappeared from the Lions offense. Through all 11-on-11 work in camp, he said, the fullback never took one snap with the first-team offense.
Three weeks into the season, he was cut.
Felton was signed by the Carolina Panthers, renewed with hope. DeAngelo Williams? Jonathan Stewart? This was his chance to ram into linebackers. Then, he saw his profession fade. Again. The Panthers employed a spread option with rookie quarterback Cam Newton.
“So I was in no man’s land the first 10 weeks of that season,” Felton said. “They weren’t using me at all.”
After Week 10, Felton was cut. Indianapolis signed him. He didn’t play.
What was supposed to be a banner year became a life crossroads. Felton ignored phone calls from his closest friends. He tossed and turned through sleepless nights. His whole life – from bruising Furman tailback to NFL fullback – was devoted to this moment.
“It was definitely an emotional time, kind of depressing,” Felton said. “After going through it once, it’d be hard to go through that again. You have to weather those storms and come out the other end a better player, a better person.
“The main thing going through my head was, ‘I worked so hard to get to this point. Is that the career I’m going to leave behind?’ I didn’t want that to be my legacy in the NFL.”
That’s when the Vikings called.
Felton beat out a younger player whose name escapes him today – “I can’t remember,” he jokes, “that sounds bad” – and made the Pro Bowl as Peterson’s lead back in a 2,097-yard season.
To him, the position brings “a different physicality.” A tight end masquerading as an H-back tends to hesitate, to plod through the hole. Not Felton. He lists off his greatest hits with pride. The A.J. Hawk knockouts. The time he “flattened” an Atlanta linebacker. The time he saw Charles Woodson lined up as the strong-side linebacker and told himself before the snap “I’m about to murder this guy.”
Felton credits former Bills fullback Sam Gash – his position coach in Detroit – for installing this mind-set in him.
“It changes the mentality of an offense,” Felton said, “if you have a fullback who can go in there, blow somebody up and set the tone physically.”
Former All-Pro Jamal Anderson agrees. He remembers crying when his fullback, Bob Christian, was lost to a knee injury late in 1998. If Christian stays healthy, Anderson is sure he would’ve surpassed 2,000 yards and Atlanta would’ve won the Super Bowl.
He calls Felton a “head hunter,” a player McCoy has never ran behind before.
Said Anderson, “News flash, you’re in Buffalo. It’s going to get cold. You’ll need to be physical, you’ll need to run the ball. This is the AFC East. The mentality of the division has always been physicality and toughness.”
Felton saw his career threatened even more. Ten weeks after the Vikings signed him, he was arrested on a DWI charge. Rather than walk the 0.92 miles to McDonald’s for a chicken sandwich, he drove and an employee thought he was falling asleep at the wheel.
Felton called his family in tears. The Vikings stuck with him and, two years later, he finished second in the team’s voting for the Korey Stringer “Good Guy Award.”
“I can own my mistake,” Felton said, “and come back a better person for it.”
The next summer, Felton woke up in the middle of the night with a cramp that turned out to be appendicitis. He caught it before it burst but the appendectomy forced him to miss three weeks of training camp. He played on.
After three seasons of bashing through the line, Felton proved there’s still a place for the fullback in today’s NFL.
So it’s no surprise that when Felton first met Ryan, the head coach told him he wants a physical offense, wants Felton setting the tone. And it’s no surprise to hear what Felton told Gash shortly after signing with the Bills.
After seeing the portrait of Gash inside the Ralph Wilson Fieldhouse, commemorating his two Pro Bowl appearances, Felton told his old coach he’d be joining him up there soon.
A 2,000-yard season from McCoy would probably do it. A run at Dickerson’s 2,105 mark, to him, is possible.
“I probably have higher goals for him than he does,” Felton said, “I’m going to try to make that happen for him.”
The Bills start training camp at 10 a.m. Friday but will be without a few key contributors. Defensive end Mario Williams, kicker Dan Carpenter and cornerback Leodis McKelvin were all placed on the active/non-football injury list Thursday.
Tight end Chris Manhertz and cornerback Cam Thomas were placed on the active/physically unable to perform list.
Both Carpenter and McKelvin had surgeries during the offseason with the cornerback being held out of 11-on-11 action during the spring. It’s unclear what Williams’ issue is.
Players had meetings and conditioning tests Thursday.