FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The NFL is home to some of the world's biggest superstars and dedicated competitors, yet games often are decided by the smallest of details in an aspect of the game not familiar to most fans.
That's where players like Luke Stocker can make an impact.
Stocker, who signed with the Falcons as a free agent this offseason, is skilled as both a tight end and a fullback, versatility that could prove particularly valuable in Atlanta. By having a player who can occupy multiple roles at once, the Falcons force their opponent to keep more options on the table before the snap.
"When Luke is in the game with another tight end you have the ability to run your '12' personnel plays and your '21' personnel plays," Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "Most defenses, they have certain calls when they know you have two backs in the game and certain calls against '12' personnel."
Personnel groupings are an important part of NFL preparation. They are the specific pairings of offensive positions for a certain play, with double-digit numbers used as the shorthand. The first number refers to the number of backs on the play, and the second number is the number of tight ends on the play.
So, "12" personnel would be made up of one back, two tight ends and two receivers; "21" personnel features two backs in the backfield, one tight end and two receivers. Traditionally, a fullback in the backfield would indicated a run. That isn't the case if that player is also an adept enough athlete and pass-catcher to also play tight end.
"If the defense has a hard time understanding what my role is they don't know how to call the play," Stocker said. "They don't know what personnel to put it, they don't know if I'm in the game are we going to be in a two-back run system or a two-tight end system. That can cause problems for them."
In a game filled with some of the strongest and fastest athletes on the planet, it's the internal speed of a player's mind that's most important. If a defender is able to eliminate certain offensive possibilities prior to the snap, that helps him better understand what might be coming. Without having to eliminate possibilities as the play develops, that defender can play fast right from the snap.
Stocker makes it harder for defenses to do that. But tight ends like Stocker are uniquely fit for a team like the Falcons. While tight ends who have the athleticism of a wide receiver are very popular right now, the Falcons utilize the fullback role as part of their zone offense.
"That lead-blocker element, that's what makes that different," Koetter said. "That guy that can insert and lead block on a linebacker or pull on a counter play and insert on a linebacker. There's a big trend in the NFL right now of tight ends that are really just big wideouts. So, that's the changeup to that."
Not since Patrick DiMarco have the Falcons had a notable receiving threat out of the backfield. During his four seasons in Atlanta, DiMarco caught 37 passes for 273 yards and four touchdowns.
Thus far in his career, Stocker has caught 68 passes for 577 yards and five touchdowns. Not only can the Falcons now run a play-action pass out of what to a defense would look like a possible power run play, but they have another receiver coming out of the backfield.
Stocker's place on this team is no accident. Over the past four seasons, Stocker has played for three head coaches; two of them are currently his offensive coordinator and his position coach. Koetter and Falcons tight end Mike Mularkey know better than anyone the type of player they are getting in Stocker.
His experience with them has also helped him get acclimated very quickly. As he happily pointed out, he's got experience playing in essentially every iteration of the Falcons' offense from the past decade.
When Koetter arrived in Tampa Bay in 2015, he introduced to Stocker an offense that had been influenced by Mularkey, who he followed as the Falcons' offensive coordinator in 2012. Stocker signed with the Titans in 2017, joining a team coached by Mularkey, who was offensive coordinator in Atlanta from 2008-11.
And then last season, Stocker's Titans were coached by Matt LaFleur, who was quarterbacks coach for the Falcons in 2015 and 2016. LaFleur's offense is derivative of the one Kyle Shanahan ran during the time with the Falcons. So, Stocker actually has a lot of exposure to the language of the Falcons' offense.
"It's interesting, there are three offenses that I've been in and this playbook is all three kind of merged together. And so, a lot of it is stuff I've done before, if not all of it is something I've done before."
Starting fullback Ricky Ortiz has not gone anywhere, but it would not be surprising if the Falcons give Stocker a look in the backfield to see if he can fill that role for them. Versatility has become an increasingly important quality for the men on NFL rosters.
"I know when we got him in Tennessee that was a big role he played for us," Mularkey said. "I think he's going to have that role here as well. We know he can do it, I've seen it, and he's been pretty successful with it."