What Do They See In Him?


The Buffalo Bills have always been the butt-end of jokes over the years, but it seemed to reach another level when they went out and signed FB Mike Tolbert and FB Patrick Dimarco on March 8. Sure, it was a headscratcher, but most media outlets would rather make jokes then really analyze why they made those moves. With Dimarco, it was fairly obvious. The guy is a top 3 fullback in the league and he is a game-changer at that position.

But signing Tolbert needed to be looked at closer to understand. He’s a Pro Bowl fullback, leader and most of all familiar with new Bills Head Coach Sean McDermott. Post signing, the Bills also hired a familiar face in Panthers G.M., Brandon Beane. So I am sure there were conversations between McDermott and Beane prior to the signing of Tolbert or any of the of the former Panthers. But besides the surface stories what else did they see in him?

When I turned on the film, I analyzed how the Panthers utilized Tolbert in their offense. An analysis of not only his skills but what roles he carried out, in what situations and just an overall examination of how offensive coordinator Mike Shula utilized him. But I then had to look at his skills through the lens of the Bills roster and new offensive scheme and here is what I came up with.

Buffalo needs depth on offense at several positions and I think if on the roster, Tolbert could check several boxes. First as a running back, a number two or three guy. The Bills lost Mike Gillislee to the Patriots. He forced 16 missed tackles and accrued an overall 56.6 elusive rating. Tolbert who is on the downside of his career only carried the ball 35 times and forced 10 missed tackles and registered a a 55.9 elusive rating. Obviously they are different backs and a very small sample but there is no doubt that Tolbert can still force guys to miss.

The Panthers are in a 3×1 set and run power. LB Navarro Bowman (#53) reads it, scrapes and meets Tolbert in the hole. “Dancing Bear” makes Bowman miss with a spin move.


With his size and athleticism most would think that he would be a hammer in short yardage situations, but he really wasn’t utilized as such in 2016. Twenty of his 35 attempts were on situations that were 10 yards or more.


Of those 20 carries he carried it 16 times on 1st and 10. But what was even more revealing was that 24 of his total carries were in the second half of games, so its pretty obvious that he isn’t a guy that will probably carry it 100 times or be a player that will be the runner up behind Shady Mccoy.

Under 2 minutes left in the game, Tolbert is the up back on the zone run.


The Panthers are one of the few teams that utilizes spread formations and pairs them with power run concepts. They are able to do it because of ‘Superman’ Cam Newton‘s mobility and size. The Bills are another team that has the capabilities because of Tyrod Taylor. Buffalo utilized a lot of 2 back pistol sets last season where they were able to run their complex run game. Under Dennison, I expect that trend to continue. I

t may be tweaked where zone run concepts become the primary run concept, but he will keep some of the gap/man concepts that worked last season. At this point in his career he is a better gap runner than zone but because of his versatility and footwork he can be used as the upback in Dennison’s offense. Using formations like the one below, forces defenses to have to defend everyone on the field, on run and pass plays.

Tolbert is the upback and receives the handoff on the gap run. But notice what the threat of Cam as a runner does to the middle linebacker. He flows with Cam and it helps Tolbert get to the second level easier.



But where I think he offers the most upside is as H-back/TE type of role. It’s a role that is prevelant in Dennison’s offense is crucial not just in the run game but the pass game. Right now the number two TE is Nick O’Leary but the number 3 TE position is really up for grabs. Tolbert could help in that area specifically as a receiver. Not only will him being in the game help dictate personnel matchups, but he isn’t a bad option as a pass catcher and the Panthers used him in that kind of role last season.


He can be used as a U-TE, the moving tight end in Dennison’s offense. Here the Panthers moved him and threw the screen to him

Shula motions him into a trips set, Cam uses his eyes to hold the hook to curl defenders and the Redskins totally forget about Tolbert.



But the biggest surprise that I noticed on film is how Tolbert was the sole running back on several 3×1 formations which if you think about it, is very interesting.


Having a player with this skillset as the lone back creates mismatches. Typically defenses will defend the backside of 3×1 formations. Some teams will just man it off, the corner will take the #1 WR and the safety or LB will cover the RB. The type of RB really dictates what kind of defender is matched up. If the defense mans up with a linebacker, the 31 one year old still has the feet and change of direction to create issues in the pass game.

On this play Tolbert is matched up against current Buffalo Bill LB Gerald Hodges Jr. The play was called back due to offensive holding, but no holding on the defensive back to the trips side?


The Panthers catch the 49ers on a blitz and Tolbert runs a crisp Texas route for a big gain.



If the defense puts a safety or corner on Tolbert the offense can execute their power run game.



But lets face it, he is a role player and that includes the passing game. He was only targeted 15 times last season. He hauled in 10 catches for for 72 yards but also managed to drop two. His sole touchdown may have come in a situation where the Bills could really use him and that is near the goalline. Against the Redskins Cam runs play action and Tolbert slips out of the backfield for the touchdown.



At this point in his career it is pretty clear that Tolbert isn’t a starter in any capacity. The Bills didn’t bring him in to do so. They brought him in because of his leadership and abilities as a role player. A veteran who could pitch in in several areas. As a backup fullback/H-back that can carry the ball as an upback in pistol 21 personnel sets, but also catch it out of the back field on play action passes. A player that could compete for snaps as a depth TE in situations where they want him to chip release or incorporate spread like concepts like this shovel option.


Lastly, if on the roster he could steal reps from the running backs late in games in the ‘closer’ role. Right now Jonathan Williams is the #2 RB and he has a tendency to lose the ball. If games are close and the Bills are up you can’t have your running backs fumbling the ball away in your four or two minute drill.

Overall, Tolbert won’t wow you with his athleticism now a days but due to his size and skill set he could very well carve out a considerable niche for himself in the Bills offense.