FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons haven't been among the most active teams in free agency this year, but the acquisition of offensive guard Brandon Fusco is a good move that shouldn't be overlooked.
Right off the bat, here are the things we know about Fusco: He played in the same scheme in San Francisco that is run here in Atlanta, giving the Falcons the ability to directly evaluate how his skill set translates. The 6-foot-4, 302-pound guard has started 80 games for the Vikings and 49ers in his seven NFL seasons, making Fusco another veteran along the offensive line.
He's an athletic guard with the mobility to lead running backs in space and make blocks at the second level and further downfield. According to Pro Football Focus, Fusco did surrender 29 pressures last season, but 21 of those came in the first half of the season. Over the final eight games, Fusco allowed just eight pressures, continuing a trend of improvement in pass protection that he's shown in recent seasons.
Looking at his tape, Fusco is a player who is competent in many areas of his game. He's well-rounded, crafty when fighting off pass rushers and smartly leverages defenders in the run game. Bottom line: There's a reason Fusco is an 80-game starter.
Before showing some examples of Fusco's abilities as a blocker, I'd like to take a second to discuss his intangibles. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn seeks competitors and players who are eager to make plays through the whistle. On the play below, Fusco (No. 63) makes his block before disengaging and sprinting downfield to try and make another block as 49ers running back breaks a long run.
Fusco is unable to reach another defender, but his effort came close to paying off in a big way for San Francisco. Near the end of the run, Hyde is stripped of the football. Fusco is the only 49ers player in frame when the ball is jarred loose, while the Houston Texans have four defenders in the vicinity. The ball ultimately rolls out of bounds, but Fusco presented the only opportunity for San Francisco to recover the fumble. That's why hustle matters.
Now that his high level of effort has been established, let's look at what he brings to the table as a blocker.
The 49ers often used Fusco to pull around the edge and act as a lead blocker on outside zone stretch runs. Against the Bears, Fusco and left tackle Trent Brown pull around tight end Garrett Celek, who blocks down on defensive end Akiem Hicks. Out in space, Fusco leads Hyde through the hole and blocks the first defender who appears, which on this play is linebacker Christian Jones.
Once Fusco sealed out Jones with inside leverage, Hyde planted his foot in the ground and accelerated through the lane that had just been created.
When he isn't pulling around the end, Fusco still uses his athleticism to create leverage on defenders, something that is important in the outside zone scheme the Falcons employ.
Against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Fusco executed a reach block against Marcell Dareus, a 6-foot-3, 331-pound defensive lineman, getting his helmet across the defender's body and allowing running back Matt Breida to reach the edge without having to maneuver any penetration.
In pass protection, Fusco is a good contributor on double teams, and he can also be left alone to block a defender one-on-one. When he doesn't have a man to block, he will often look to help a teammate with his assignment.
Fusco is better known for his skills as a run blocker, but he is far from incompetent in pass protection. He keeps his head up to identify stunts and delayed blitzes; he utilizes his hands well to counteract swim and rip moves and he will absorb bull rushes, reset his feet to anchor his weight and stop a defender's advance.
Against the Seattle Seahawks, Fusco showed his hand usage and ability to anchor and reset his power all in one play. Fusco blocks Seahawks defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson one-on-one, using a quick punch to get into his body and fighting off his attempt to disengage and get upfield. After Richardson's path upfield is cut off, he converts his speed into power and knocks Fusco backwards. Fusco quickly recovers, however, and matches Richardson's strength, evening pushing the defensive tackle off balance.
In one play, we get a good idea of the versatility Fusco has as a pass blocker. I've slowed the clip down to help show all of the different nuances that occur.
In free agency, it's the big names and acquisitions that dominate headlines and turn heads. With a young, talented roster in place, however, the Falcons don't need to overpay for household names or try to win the headlines. Atlanta was the only NFC team to make a return trip to the playoffs in 2017, and it's because of the group they have in the locker room.
Instead, the Falcons made a savvy move to address a need. With the price tag for offensive guards soaring in recent years, Atlanta added a veteran starter of 80 games who has experience playing in its offensive scheme, and it didn't sacrifice its future financial flexibility to do so. That's a success. The Fusco signing may not be one that wins the news cycle in March, but it's one that very well may help the Falcons win games in the fall.