I had the strangest experience shortly after the Ravens selected Harvard's Kyle Juszczyk in the fourth round of the 2013 draft.
I could see the future. I could hear the future, too.
Once I did a little digging into the myriad talents of Juszczyk, a hybrid fullback/h-back/u-back who can blow up defenders in the running game but also catch passes, I was strangely able to close my eyes and see the Ravens using him.
I could see him lining up in the slot, taking a quick first step and catching a bullet-like slant from Joe Flacco, much like Dennis Pitta. I could see him churning out of the backfield and turning to catch a sharply-angled dump-off from Flacco, much like Vonta Leach.
And once I heard that Juszczyk had a name so hard to pronounce that he had happily gone with the nickname "Juice" for years, I knew exactly how Baltimore's fans would greet his catches both at home and on the road, with a serenade of "Juuuuuuice," following the pattern they've set for years with Leach ("Leeeach") and before him, Todd Heap ("Heeeeap").
Yes, with the crispness and clarity of a sunny fall afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium, I could see and hear the 6-foot-1, 250-pound Juszczyk's future, which is certainly the scenario the Ravens envision for him.
I guess I was not alone in this experience, for within hours of his selection, actually within minutes, I was hearing on the radio and reading online that the arrival of Juszczyk could hasten the departure of Leach, who has been an All-Pro in each of his two seasons in Baltimore but is scheduled to make more than $4 million in 2013.
The thought process went like this: If Juszczyk could somehow replicate enough of what Leach provides to satisfy the Ravens, well, he's going to be a lot cheaper. No one wants see the popular, hard-hitting Leach depart, but such is life under the salary cap.
I get that scenario. The Ravens have made plenty of others moves like it over the years. And given the surprises they already have engineered in this offseason, there's no telling what might happen between now and the season opener in Denver in September.
But while it's easy to see that evolution occurring at fullback, I think the immediate scenario is hasty. It's a long jump from catching passes against Yale and Penn to catching passes against the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots. Juszczyk is gifted and driven, but he deserves space and time to develop. He has said he is expecting to learn the ropes under Leach, a far wiser idea one might expect from a Harvard guy.
I expect the future I envision for him to eventually become a reality, but there's room for both players in the offense in the short term.
For starters, although Juszczyk surely is an effective blocker, Leach is the NFL's premier blocking back, crucial to what the Ravens do on the ground. And they have such big plans for their running game in 2013 that they have brought in a run-game coordinator, Juan Castillo.
And while it's true the fullback position itself is slowly being de-emphasized as passing games rise around the league, offenses are also evolving toward unusual sets featuring, for example, two tight ends or a fullback split wide, all designed to surprise defenses and cause matchup problems that can be exploited.
Juszczyk seems like a perfect puzzle piece for that environment. He lined up all over the place in college, in the backfield, in the slot, even split wide. Ravens Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell didn't get as much new blood out of the draft as his defensive counterpart, but I'm sure he is having a grand time figuring out ways to use his new toy hybrid … while retaining his incumbent All-Pro blocker, of course.
A red-zone set featuring both would be interesting, huh?
The Ravens are excited about Juszczyk's future or they wouldn't have invested a fourth-round pick in him. If he proceeds along a typical developmental arc, "Juuuuuice" could soon become a popular refrain at games. I've already heard it, actually. It's coming.