Burton caught Lions' attention at Quick Lane Bowl

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Allen Park — During the process of evaluating talent, many teams focus on the Senior Bowl and at the combine to make their assessments.

Every once in a while, there's an opportunity to catch a glimpse of a player at a regular-season game or a bowl game.

Such was the case with Lions general manager Martin Mayhew in gauging Michael Burton, whose Rutgers team beat North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit in December.

Finding a player to draft in that situation isn't unusual.

But a fullback?

"That's because there are no fullbacks anymore. Fullback is a dying position in college football I think with all the spread offenses, but this guy is very talented, very athletic," Mayhew said Saturday after selecting Burton 168th overall. "He catches the ball really well out of the backfield, can locate guys in space and block in space, so we liked him a lot."

Much of the Lions' philosophy in the draft overall was on improving the run game. By getting guard Laken Tomlinson in the first round and adding Manny Ramirez — who was acquired in a trade with the Broncos after moving down five slots — the Lions added size and depth to the line. Picking up running back Ameer Abdullah in the second round gave hints about their intentions.

But picking Burton in the fifth round tipped their hand and showed Mayhew and coach Jim Caldwell were going all-in on their emphasis on running the ball better. After ranking 28th in the NFL last season in rushing, the new additions will look to make a marked increase.

"You always want to be able to run the ball. These players will help us run the ball more effectively. They are going to help us be a better offense too," offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. "The guard (Tomlinson) is going run block well, but he's also going to pass block well. The running back (Abdullah) is going to run the ball well, but is a really good receiver and will add a lot for our special teams.

"(Burton) is obviously more of a run-game thing. We definitely want to and need to run the ball better than we did last year and these guys will help us do that."

But for a position that is often overlooked in the draft, the Lions used a valuable pick to pick up a player they hope will be a good fit with their offensive needs.

"It's a position that I always like having. Fullbacks — some people call them a dying breed — — but they're tough guys and I know that we've had a good history of fullbacks here, so we like his toughness," offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. "At the bowl game, I know Martin Mayhew, this guy kind of caught his eye at the bowl game here in Detroit. So, it's a strong guy, smart player, tough — everything you want in a fullback."

With a stocked backfield that includes Joique Bell, Theo Riddick and now Abdullah, Burton likely won't be called upon for many carries — he only had one last season for the Scarlet Knights — but he could be a hidden weapon with his hands, as he had 47 career catches for 401 yards.

Burton's versatility on special teams is an added bonus, as he's played on all four squads and could help to bolster those positions with the Lions. Burton said he was told that his ability to contribute on multiple units was one of the reasons he was selected.

"My versatility — that is definitely the No. 1 thing," Burton said Saturday via teleconference. "I was on every special teams at Rutgers throughout my entire career. I played on kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt block, field goal and I was a starter on every team. I have a lot of experience on special teams and I understand that will be a very important goal for me when I get to camp."

Since he finished his career at Rutgers, Burton has gained 20 pounds and he's filling into a size that could make him a solid pick for the Lions, even though there were other positions they could have picked instead.

"He looks good; I saw him at the combine. I didn't know what he weighed when the season ended, but he's a good-looking, physical guy," Mayhew said. "At fullback, you know, you want a guy that's durable. You want a guy that can do multiple things. In the NFL now, if you get a guy that only can lead block — for example, only catch the ball out of the backfield — you're really limited as to how much you can get that guy on the field.

"This guy plays special teams, catches the ball out of the backfield, can lead block.

"He can do so many different things. We like him for that reason."

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/detnewsRodBeard

About Michael Burton

Position : Fullback

Pick : Fifth round, 168th overall

Size: 5-foot-11, 242 pounds

College: Rutgers

Notable: Had 22 carries for 116 yards in his college career and added 47 catches for 401 yards and 3 TD. He's a versatile special-teams player and could have several roles with the Lions.