Fullbacks are quickly fading into obscurity in the modern NFL landscape.
Offenses are becoming increasingly reliant on four- and five-receiver sets, read-option rushing attacks and multiple tight ends. These changes to the game are leaving little room for a position that was once prevalent across the league.
How have we reached this point?
What happened to the times when stars such as Jim Brown and Larry Csonka were proud to line up as fullbacks?
The fact of the matter is that this has not been a slow descent for the position. As recently as 2009, the top 10 rushing teams in the NFL each featured a fullback in the backfield.
The reason for this would at first appear simple. Fullbacks are typically big, strong lead blockers that can clear paths for running backs to follow. They are able to both gain tough yards and remove immediate defensive threats.
It is a position that is most prominently featured in variations of the I formation. However, that is likely one of the biggest reasons for its sudden downfall.
NFL offenses are not looking to spend much time in traditional I formations anymore. They are trying to innovate and create clear mismatches against the defense. That seems to mean spreading the field horizontally and giving quarterbacks as many options as possible to throw to.
As the shotgun formation continues its ascent in popularity, running plays—and by extension, the need for lead blockers—become less prevalent.
Does this mean that fullbacks will ever become truly extinct?
Perhaps not, but they must continue to evolve.
What this means is that we will continue to see an influx of "hybrid" fullbacks: players that do not solely dedicate themselves to lining up in the backfield but also spend time at tight end, running back or wherever else is needed.
Yes, there are still players representing the old guard. Guys like Vonta Leach of the Baltimore Ravens and John Kuhn of the Green Bay Packers fit the traditional mold of a fullback. They are almost solely used as blockers and do little else.
However, they are the minority, while hybrids now make up the majority. We see players like Marcel Reece of the Oakland Raiders, Greg Jones of the Jacksonville Jaguars and David Johnson of the Pittsburgh Steelers falling into the H-back type of role.
Will the traditional style ever return to prominence?
We all know that football is a cyclical game. Styles and formations go through surges in popularity (remember the Wildcat formation of three and four seasons ago?).
Still, the league is becoming increasingly pass-happy, and there is no way to ignore that fact. There have been at least 10 quarterbacks to throw for 4,000 yards in each of the last two seasons. That is a feat that had never before been accomplished in NFL history.
2011 saw three QBs hit the 5,000-yard mark, and 2012 saw 18 signal-callers attempt at least 500 passes. There are fewer chances for running plays and even fewer chances for fullbacks to be used.
Are fullbacks still important in today's NFL?
B/R's Matt Miller only saw fit to rank 16 fullbacks from the 2012 season in the latest B/R NFL 1,000 installment, and Bucky Brooks of NFL.com estimated that fullbacks are only on the field for 10 to 12 plays per game. Are NFL teams really going to continue to devote critical roster spots to traditional fullbacks that can only impact the game on 10 to 12 plays?
It seems doubtful when there are hybrid players who can handle that role and do so many other things as well. Have these hybrids proven to be as good of blockers as their traditional brethren?
Of course not, but the path of the NFL does not seem to be one predicated on a ton of downhill rushing attacks. Those types of attacks will still have their place, but it will become in an increasingly small capacity.
So are NFL fullbacks a dying breed?
In the traditional sense of the position, they most certainly are, but fullbacks will continue to adapt and evolve.
Fullback is never going to be the most exciting position in football, yet by finding ways to stay relevant, it can keep a firm hold on its importance to the game.