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Why the Bills value Patrick DiMarco, even though he's a fullback

The Buffalo Bills list Patrick DiMarco as a fullback, but he fully understands that limiting his knowledge to duties specific to that position is both short-sighted and hazardous to his job security.

Fullbacks are the NFL's dinosaurs. Anyone still able to draw a paycheck in that capacity — especially the $2.15 million that DiMarco counts against the Bills' salary cap, second only to the $5.95 million the San Francisco 49ers commit to Kyle Juszczyk — had better excel at multitasking.

That has been DiMarco's mission since joining an active roster in the league for the first time in 2012. Never has it been more important than now, as he begins his third season with Bills.

"We're doing a lot of cool things on the offense and moving me around and doing a lot of different stuff," said DiMarco, who signed with Buffalo as an unrestricted free agent from the Atlanta Falcons. "So that's (part of) kind of a mental game I've got to play. I've got to know all the empty stuff, I've got to know all the (halfback plays), I've got to know all the second tight-end stuff.

"I love that stuff. I'm a master of knowing the playbook, knowing my responsibility, knowing what the play is, why I'm doing what I'm doing, how am I supposed to do it. Just continually challenging myself."

Suffice it to say that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll had enough faith in the scope of what the 6-foot-1, 234-pound DiMarco knows to feel comfortable lining him up at receiver 27 times in Sunday's 17-16 season-opening victory against the New York Jets.

DiMarco's ability to handle the role was vital to the two-back spread formation the Bills primarily used to force the Jets' linebackers to work in space, cut down on their blitzing and create favorable matches in the passing game for quarterback Josh Allen to exploit. DiMarco only had two passes thrown his way, both of which he caught for nine yards.

However, his main purpose was to serve as sort of a warning signal for the type of coverage the Jets would use – zone, if they put a cornerback in front of him; man-to-man, if they put a linebacker there. That went a long way toward allowing the Bills to use a faster-paced attack.

"To have a guy like Pat, he can line up in any spot. He’s smart, he’s tough," Daboll told reporters. "You have to decide what kind of personnel you want to run as an offense, what you think gives you the best advantage. Maybe it’s matchups at certain spots, using him as a chess piece, so to speak. It depends on what the defense wants to do, too.

"Again, we were going a little bit of up tempo with that personnel grouping. So then you see what the defense is doing and what kind of personnel group they want to use and it’s kind of a chess match back and forth. It’s just one personnel grouping that we decided to use that we thought would give us some indicators and play fast and give some unique formations that they hadn’t seen."

DiMarco was on the field for 33 offensive snaps Sunday (48 percent). That's more than three times the 10.5 he averaged last season.

The number probably won't be as consistently high as it was against the Jets, because not all opponents — including the New York Giants, who the Bills face Sunday — have the same defensive scheme or situation at linebacker, where the Jets were hit hard with injuries before the season. In all likelihood, DiMarco will find himself back doing the more conventional chores that a fullback does, helping to open holes for the halfbacks, while also contributing to special teams.

"Some games, he's going to be in there the whole game, some games, he might not," center Mitch Morse said. "I mean, that's just a way of a fullback. Just ultimate kudos to those guys. They're the true warriors, true gladiators in this game."

On Sunday, DiMarco was on six special-teams plays (26 percent). His typical involvement comes on kickoff, kickoff return, and punt coverage. He also backs up at all special-teams spots except kicker and punter.

"I've got to make the most of every one of those opportunities," DiMarco said. "It's tough to not have your number called and then go out there and execute, but it's something, as a fullback you have to be used to. You have to be used to playing one or two plays the first drive and then maybe not getting any for two drives or something, and being able to go out there and strap your pads on and act like you just played the last play.

"It's a mindset. You have to know you're not going to be out there every play, which, of course as a competitive man, I want to be out there every single play. But it's something that you just have to swallow and just go out there and compete."

Having the proper attitude goes a long way. In DiMarco's eyes, any achievement by the featured backs for whom he has blocked — until this season, it was LeSean McCoy, and now it's Devin Singletary and Frank Gore — were his.

"It's a selfless position," DiMarco said. "I take pride in (a back) rushing for a buck-fifty; I feel like I rushed for a buck-fifty. It's something you just go out there and do, you find a knack for it. If you're doing a good job, you're having fun, you're going to be pretty successful.

"I just go out there and give it all I've got in any way I can to help this team win, whether it be if I need to fill in on third-down pass pro, if I need to cover 400 kicks. Whatever it is, I'm here to help this team win."

The process includes doing everything possible to make himself a better player. Each offseason, DiMarco identifies an aspect of his game to address. This year, it was using his feet more in striking defenders in run and pass blocking.

DiMarco set out to "roll his hips" more to get his feet moving faster.

"Because last year I felt like I got stuck," he said. "I would have good collision and then my feet would die. And with the backs we've got, they're so darn talented. All they need is six inches, a foot, if I can just create that little bit by getting my feet going and rolling my hips."

DiMarco also makes a point of serving as an extra member of the special-teams coaching staff that the unit's new coordinator, Heath Farwell, oversees. DiMarco constantly offers his younger teammates on the kicking units guidance and instruction.

The motivation largely comes from the errors he recalls making as a younger player.

"I've had to learn from the burn, learn by making mistakes, and I'm trying to teach them so they don't have to learn from the burn, so they can just go out there and play at a high level right away," DiMarco said. "I take a lot of pride in that, especially when you go from being the stud on your college team and not playing on special teams, and then you're a four-phaser. It's enough to learn two of them, but then trying to learn all four.

"We had (one other) fullback here last year, Zach Olstad (before he was waived after reaching an injury settlement with the Bills). I felt like it was part of my job to make him successful. If he was practicing well, then I was doing my job. I was giving him my pointers because a lot of vets don't do that. A lot of vets want to protect their jobs, but I feel like it's my duty as a leader, as a person, as a Christian, to pour into people and truly just try to impact their lives."

DiMarco, 30, admires that Gore, a 15-year veteran, takes a similar approach. As far as the fullback is concerned, Gore's addition was the best thing that could happen to the running back room.

"I've learned a lot from him, just the way he sees stuff. Frank has got almost 14,000 rushing yards, so he's been there, done it and lived it. I just love his demeanor, man. He's a frickin' warrior, he's a competitor. He's a guy that you just want to go to war with.

"He's mastered his craft and he's learned to be a master of people, too. He's so easy for Devin to ask him a question and just like boom, boom, 'This is what I did my rookie year … this is how I grew … this is how I did this.' So it's just amazing to watch the older guys pour into the younger guys."

Morse, who is in his fifth NFL season, views DiMarco in a similar way. He didn't know the fullback before joining the Bills in March.

During their time together, Morse has found it easy to develop a tremendous amount of respect for DiMarco.

"No one really grows up wanting to be a dude who has to stick their nose in it every game and maybe get the ball here and there," Morse said. "But he's a guy who's done it very well for a very long time, and we're happy to have him and I'm happy to be his teammate, for sure."

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