B/R NFL 1000: Ranking the Top 20 Fullbacks from 2015
At the end of the 2015 NFL season, who was the best fullback in the game? We're not talking about who made the Pro Bowl or even who got the All-Pro votes. Who was really, truly, the best? Forget reputation and how much money each player makes. We want cold, hard analysis that comes from watching the games and grading the players.
That's what the B/R NFL 1000 is for, and it's back for another year.
The B/R 1000 metric is based heavily on scouting each player and grading the key criteria for each position. The criteria are weighted according to importance for a possible best score of 100.
Potential is not taken into consideration. Neither are career accomplishments.
Fullbacks are judged on blocking (30 points), power (20), speed (20), hands (20) and the overall value of the position relative to the other spots on the field (every fullback gets5 points) for a maximum score of 95.
In the case of ties, our team asked, "Which player would I rather have on my team?" and set the rankings accordingly.
Subjective? Yes. But ties are no fun.
A team of experienced evaluators (Dan Bazal, Luke Easterling, Cian Fahey, Adam Heisler, Duke Manyweather, Matt Miller and Marshal Miller) scouted each player with these key criteria in mind. The following scouting reports and grades are the work of months of film study from our team.
20. Malcolm Johnson, Cleveland Browns
A hybrid fullback/tight end, Malcolm Johnson doesn't have the frame or skill set of a traditional lead blocker, and his limited opportunities in that role showed as much this season. The Browns ran plenty of one-back formations, preferring to use Johnson in other ways when he did make it onto the field.
Despite his 6'1", 231-pound frame, Johnson packs a decent punch for a smaller fullback. The rookie out of Mississippi State didn't have many chances to show it off, but he has enough strength to keep from getting completely blown up at the point of attack.
The Browns spent a sixth-round pick on Johnson in large part because of his unique natural tools, and his size/speed combination was certainly one of them. His smaller frame allows him to be one of the faster players in this group and will be his most valuable asset as he continues to develop and refine the rest of his skill set.
Johnson was targeted just five times in the passing game, coming away with four catches for a meager 15 yards. Securing just 80 percent of your targets is impressive, regardless of volume, but Johnson did not make an impact as a receiving threat in the Browns offense.
19. Cory Harkey, St. Louis Rams
Cory Harkey is listed as a tight end but did the majority of his work lined up in the fullback role. Despite his lack of overwhelming physical traits, he was largely effective leading the way for Rookie of the Year Todd Gurley.
While he did a solid job of neutralizing defenders with proper angles and technique, Harkey rarely won by simply overpowering his target. Built more like a tight end at 6'4", 259 pounds, he had difficulty at times getting proper leverage due to his taller, leaner frame.
Though he was used in the receiving game to a small extent, he averaged just 5.2 yards per catch, showing his inability to beat defenders with any speed. He was at his best blocking between the tackles rather than trying to get out on the edge and beat quicker defenders to the punch.
Harkey has seen his receiving opportunities shrink over the past three seasons, watching his catch numbers dwindle from 13 in 2013 to eight in 2014 and down to just five on five targets this season. Clearly, the Rams prefer to rely on other targets in the short passing game, and Harkey's lack of sizzle as a receiver has given them all the reason.
18. Jerome Felton, Buffalo Bills
Jerome Felton didn't see the field as much as some fullbacks, as the Bills ran plenty of one-back sets and also played both LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams in the backfield at times. But when he was in the game, Felton showed an effective blend of functional strength, awareness and technique to help plow the road for the Buffalo ground game.
Felton stands at 6'0", 248 pounds, a decent enough frame for a lead blocker. He can handle himself against lighter linebackers but tends to struggle against bigger edge players or inside backers. He is more of a "get in the way" blocker than an overpowering force, but he still gets the job done.
Felton has adequate speed, getting to the edge quickly on outside runs and moving through the hole fast enough to not make the halfback wait on him. He was used sparingly in the passing game but has enough wheels to threaten linebackers in the flat.
Felton was targeted just twice in 2015, catching one pass for 12 yards, his first reception since 2013. Nobody will confuse Felton for Larry Centers anytime soon.
17. Jorvorskie Lane, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
When you plow the road for the NFL's second-leading rusher, you have to be doing something right. But while Jorvorskie Lane certainly had a hand in Doug Martin's resurgence in 2015, he won more with sheer power than he did with consistent, proper blocking technique. He needs to take better angles to his target and play with better awareness moving forward.
At 5'11", 258 pounds, Lane is built like a refrigerator and packs the same punch a Kenmore would if it got a running start and met you in the A-gap. If he lines up his target right, he can easily overpower smaller linebackers and box safeties and is thick enough to absorb bigger linemen at the point of attack, if needed.
Lane has his strengths, but you won't find blazing speed on that list. His short-area quickness is effective enough as a blocker, but he won't turn the corner on a linebacker in the flat or give you much as a runner. He only got three touches all season for a reason.
While he has flashed the ability to catch the ball reliably over the past two training camps, Lane hasn't been given much of an opportunity as a receiver out of the backfield since joining the Bucs. In 2015, he ended the year with just 13 yards on two receptions.
16. Anthony Sherman, Kansas City Chiefs
At 5'10", 242 pounds, Anthony Sherman doesn't overwhelm his opponents physically, but he uses solid technique and a good understanding of his assignments to be successful. He was particularly effective at getting low and cutting defenders, which is aided by his shorter frame. He helped the Chiefs average 4.7 yards per carry in 2015, the third-highest mark in the NFL.
At his size, it should come as no surprise that power and brute strength aren't Sherman's best traits. He wins by taking good angles and setting his defender up the way he wants him, in the absence of the ability to simply overpower him.
One benefit to Sherman's smaller frame is adequate speed, which he puts to use as a blocker as well as a receiver out of the backfield. He's quick and smart enough to get to his mark on time, and he can challenge bigger linebackers when they're forced to run with him as a pass-catcher.
Sherman was targeted just four times in the passing game this season but came away with four catches for 34 yards. He doesn't have the most natural hands among NFL fullbacks, but he got the job done for the most part when called upon.
15. Tyler Clutts, Dallas Cowboys
It's no secret that Dallas has arguably the NFL’s most talented offensive line, but Tyler Clutts should certainly get his slice of the credit for the Cowboys' effectiveness on the ground in 2015. Clutts is a nimble blocker who excelled at sifting through the trash and meeting his mark, even if he couldn't always overpower him once he got there.
Lead blocking is tougher for taller fullbacks, and at 6'2", 250 pounds, Clutts certainly falls into that category. Even without the benefit of the lower pad level that many fullbacks enjoy, he showed adequate power at the point of attack, taking on linebackers and defensive backs and winning the power struggle more often than not.
He's quick for his size but won't win many footraces. Still, he's fast enough to get out in front and seal the edge. He can get to the hole quickly enough to avoid getting beaten to the punch by his defender.
Not a receiving threat in the slightest, Clutts has registered just one catch in each of the last three seasons. He was targeted once in 2015, gaining four yards. The Cowboys used their backs as receivers plenty this season, but Clutts wasn't one of them.
14. John Kuhn, Green Bay Packers
More short-yardage specialist than devastating lead blocker, John Kuhn did a decent job of taking on defenders and tying them up enough for Green Bay's backs to find room. The Packers averaged 4.2 yards per carry on the ground as Kuhn led the way again this year.
Kuhn is at his best in short-yardage situations, when he uses his thick frame, leverage and brute strength to move piles and chains alike. He has a tree-trunk lower body that gives him great drive as both a runner and blocker.
He's no speed demon, but Kuhn is fast enough to scoop and set the edge on outside runs and can outrun some linebackers to the flat if he needs to move the chains that way in short-yardage situations. For a 250-pound fullback, he can work up an impressive head of steam.
Kuhn was an effective receiver once he got the ball in his hands this season, but that was a hit-or-miss proposition for the 10-year veteran out of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. Kuhn was targeted nine times through the air, catching just six of them and averaging nearly 10 yards per reception.
13. Bruce Miller, San Francisco 49ers
Bruce Miller's frame isn't the most conducive to lead-blocking duty, but what he lacks in power he makes up for with solid technique and knowing where he needs to be and when he needs to get there. He wins more often than he loses at the point of attack, but his lack of strength is noticeable at times.
At 6'2", 248 pounds, Miller is one of the more high-cut fullbacks in the league, making him better suited for an H-back role. His thinner frame limits his power as a lead blocker, making it easier for defenders to get into and under his pads, winning leverage and driving him back.
Miller's speed didn't earn him many carries, but he put it to good use as a receiver and used it effectively as a blocker by beating defenders to the hole and being prepared to absorb the contact. He showed the ability to beat linebackers to the flat and pick up yardage through the air in key situations.
Miller was a solid receiver out of the backfield for the 49ers in 2015, catching 10 of his 13 targets for 135 yards, including tracking down a deep throw over his shoulder for a 52-yard catch and run against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 6.
12. Nikita Whitlock, New York Giants
The Giants ran a good bit out of the shotgun without a fullback in 2015, but when he had his chances, Nikita Whitlock was effective more often than not at neutralizing his target and giving the tailback something to work with.
At 5'10", 250 pounds, Whitlock has a solid frame and put it to good use against would-be tacklers, powering over smaller defenders and at least standing up some of the bigger ones. When he was consistent with his technique and leverage at the point of attack, he was effective as a lead blocker.
Speed is perhaps Whitlock's most impressive trait, considering his bulky frame. He showed good explosion off the ball, getting downhill quickly and confidently, meeting his target with plenty of momentum to become much more powerful on contact.
Whitlock didn't get much of a chance to show his skills as a receiver out of the backfield, as he registered zero catches on the season. In limited pass-protection reps, he showed better than average hand usage against oncoming rushers.
11. Michael Burton, Detroit Lions
Michael Burton showed an impressive combination of awareness and physicality in 2015, especially considering he's a fifth-round rookie. The Rutgers product did an adequate job of identifying his assignments and adjusting his trajectory when necessary, overcoming his lack of brute strength with solid technique and intelligence.
While he was effective at getting to the point of attack and doing enough to impede free runners from getting a shot at the tailback, Burton didn't display the ability to overpower defenders in the hole or drive them away from the play. Getting there is half the battle, but Burton will need to improve his functional strength if he wants to continue to develop into one of the league's better lead blockers.
While Burton doesn't have the size of an ideal lead blocker at 6'0", 247 pounds, his lighter build grants him the speed to get downhill quickly and get open in the flat as a receiver. He ran a 4.74 40-yard dash at the combine last year, and he backed up that time with his play on the field in his rookie year.
Though he wasn't used often as a receiver out of the backfield, when given the opportunity, Burton displayed the same reliable hands he displayed for the Scarlet Knights. He caught six passes for 39 yards and a touchdown in his first NFL season.
10. Jay Prosch, Houston Texans
Jay Prosch has the ability to clear out rushing lanes, and the Houston running backs following his lead appreciated it. He does have to get stronger to be more consistent in getting the push needed to take on defenders head-on and not always at an angle, though.
The top-tier strength isn't there for Prosch, but he compensates well with speed and intensity. He has to work on dealing with pressure from bull-rushers when his agility and quickness aren't good enough to stop pass-rushers.
While Prosch doesn't have blazing speed, he's fast for an NFL fullback. His ability to work in space and what he does working down the field show that Prosch's quickness and agility are pluses.
One of the holes in Prosch's game is his lack of impact as a receiver. In 2015, he had no targets and no catches in an offense that needed a contributor over the middle and in short-yardage situations.
9. Darrel Young, Washington Redskins
As a blocker, Darrel Young is able to control the point of attack, showing the power and balance to lock on and move defenders. He's patient and poised and has the toughness to knock off linebackers or defensive ends in pass protection.
Young's 5'11", 251-pound frame packs a punch. He has the upper- and lower-body strength to win early as a blocker, and while he's rarely used as a ball-carrier, Young doesn't go down on first contact. While working as a protector in the passing game, he didn't surrender a single sack or hurry all season but did allow one quarterback hit.
You won't confuse Young for a halfback with his size and speed, but he's able to get out in space and push the run game forward. And in the pass game, when he is used as a receiver, Young has the speed to get open out of the backfield.
On six targets, Young caught six passes for 22 yards. He's limited as a receiving option on more than checkdowns.
8. Zach Line, Minnesota Vikings
Zach Line opened holes for the NFL's leading rusher, Adrian Peterson, and did so with impressive pop at the point of attack. He's able to use a leaner frame (6'1", 233 lbs) to push back linebackers while at the same timing having the base to anchor against defensive ends or blitzers in the pass game.
With the power to shock defenders when they meet, Line impresses as a runner and blocker. He not only absorbs contact when matching up against defenders, but he delivers contact too. With the ball in his hands, Line can also pick up plus yards after first contact.
Line's 4.77 speed shows impressive movement skills for a fullback. With his agility, short-area quickness and open-field speed, he's a threat as a runner and receiver.
Line showed good hands during his time at SMU, but in the NFL he hasn't been utilized in the passing game. In 2015 he had just eight catches on 10 targets, with two drops recorded on the limited targets.
7. Roosevelt Nix, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers found a keeper with fullback Roosevelt Nix in his second season. He impressed as a pass protector with his awareness and toughness in the backfield. He's quick to react to pass-rushers and is agile enough to slide and pick up edge blitzers. The run game was inconsistent for Nix, as faster linebackers were able to beat him to his spots at times.
At 5'11" and 248 pounds, Nix packs a punch when he meets a defender in the hole. He doesn't run the ball, so there's nothing to look at for his short-yardage power, but he checks all the boxes as a power blocker.
Nix has the pop out of the backfield to get to the second level as a blocker, and he'll get outside the tackle box on outside runs. In a zone-blocking scheme, he has the quickness to flow down the line and get upfield while creating a hole.
The Steelers didn't involve Nix in the passing game often—he saw just two targets and made two catches. The 100 percent catch rate is impressive, but his limited ability in the passing game is a big reason why he only saw two targets.
6. Jamize Olawale, Oakland Raiders
Jamize Olawale came out of nowhere to be an impact three-down player for the Oakland Raiders in 2015. With good overall athletic ability and instincts, he is at his best blocking outside the tackle box. On rushing downs, he's stout enough to handle linebackers one-on-one in space.
In his third season, Olawale became a bigger factor in the run game, posting 110 yards on 24 carries. His ability to pick up yards after contact (2.6 yards after the fact) makes him an intriguing option in short-yardage situations. Olawale's power as a blocker allows him to push the pile or dig his heels in to stonewall pass-rushers.
A top-tier athlete at fullback, Olawale ran the 40 in 4.53 seconds during his pro day before the 2012 NFL draft. He's built like a big running back and moves like one too.
Olawale was only thrown at 11 times this season, grabbing nine receptions with no drops. With 7.6 yards after the catch on average, Olawale has upside in this area.
5. Jalston Fowler, Tennessee Titans
Jalston Fowler came into the NFL and was immediately one of the best blocking fullbacks in the game. In the run or pass game, he's patient and poised, showing the balance and violence needed to be a great blocker. Fowler seeks out targets and uses his 5'11", 254-pound frame to deliver the big hits between the tackles needed to open up the run game, but he also has the quickness to react to blitzers in pass protection or to spring the edge on outside runs. Coming from a pro-style offense at Alabama, Fowler adapted well to the zone-read style of offense the Titans installed for quarterback Marcus Mariota.
With only seven carries on the season, Fowler didn't blow anyone away as a runner, but he brings power to the table as a ball-carrier and blocker. Look for the run game to be an area where he develops further in the future, but right now his blocking game is on point.
Fowler timed at 4.94 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine but improved that time to 4.83 seconds at his pro day. He's not a burner but has the burst and short-area speed to make an impact as a blocker.
The Titans threw the ball to Fowler five times in 2015, and he caught all five of them for 44 yards and a touchdown. His hands score isn't a perfect 20 even though he caught 100 percent of his targets because of his small sample size of production.
4. Mike Tolbert, Carolina Panthers
Carolina's Mike Tolbert is like a running back in a fullback’s body. At 5'9" and 250 pounds, he's versatile as a runner, receiver and blocker. Tolbert's blocking skills can be hit-or-miss in the run game outside the tackle box, but he's good between the tackles at rocking back linebackers. In the passing game, he is able to thrive protecting the quarterback thanks to his ability to anchor down against pass-rushers.
Power is the name of the game for Tolbert. He's an exceptional short-yardage runner and picks up yards before and after contact while running mainly between the guards on tough conversions. His burst out of the backfield generates a ton of push.
Compared to other fullbacks, Tolbert's speed is solid. If compared to running backs, he comes in well below average. The upside here is that he's fast enough to pick up yards as a runner and quick enough to get to the second level as a blocker.
The Panthers passing game hasn't relied on Tolbert as much in the last two seasons, but he's still solid as a receiver. In 2015 he grabbed 18 balls on 22 targets and didn't drop a pass. With three touchdowns (tying a career high), Tolbert stands out as a receiver.
3. Kyle Juszczyk, Baltimore Ravens
The 6'1", 248-pound hammer out of Harvard, Kyle Juszczyk can lay the wood in the blocking game. He’s a straight-on pile driver but also has the finesse and agility to get outside and kick out linebackers for the stretch or toss run game. He's aware, powerful and willing when it comes to opening rushing lanes.
As a runner and blocker, Juszczyk is not limited in his power distribution. He has a powerful, filled-out lower body that allows him to leverage into defenders for an impact block. While he had only two carries in 2015, he's able to push the pile there too, as evidenced by his career average of 7.3 yards after contact per reception.
For a big man, Juszczyk can move. He was timed at 4.71 seconds in the 40-yard dash before the 2013 NFL draft and uses that speed well as a blocker or ball-carrier.
The Ravens have relied on Juszczyk in the passing game over the last two seasons, and in 2015 he saw a bump in production with 41 catches for 321 yards and four touchdowns. On 50 targets, he did drop three passes, but a catch rate of 82 percent for a fullback is impressive.
2. Marcel Reece, Oakland Raiders
At 6'1" and 250 pounds, Marcel Reece has ideal size for an NFL fullback. He uses that size well as an athletic, rangy blocker. When asked to get outside the tackle box to kick-out block on tosses, he does the job with fluid movements. In the trenches, Reece looks like the running back he sometimes is. He's not made to bang with inside linebackers.
Reece can generate power as a runner and blocker. His center of gravity is low with the ball or without it, and he's a natural at firing out low and hard.
Comparing Reece to other fullbacks, even at 30 years old, you see that he's in rare company from a speed and agility perspective. He moves better than some of the NFL's big running backs.
Reece caught 30 passes in 2015, which is a great number for a back but his lowest production since 2011. On 36 targets, he had just one drop, which showcases his reliability. Reece is a top-tier route-runner from the backfield and an excellent safety valve in the passing game.
1. Patrick DiMarco, Atlanta Falcons
Patrick DiMarco enjoyed his best NFL season in year three and showed the tools to be named our No. 1 fullback. As a blocker, he excels at sealing linebackers or defensive ends to open rushing lanes, and even in pass protection he's balanced, poised and strong at the point of attack. You'd feel good if DiMarco was protecting your blind side or tasked with opening your rushing lane.
At 6'1" and 234 pounds, DiMarco can pack a punch both as a blocker and with the ball in his hands. He's not timid either and generally looks for contact when he's trying to spring his running back for a big play.
You won't see DiMarco streaking past defenders in the open field, but he has enough functional speed to turn the corner as a lead blocker or reach linebackers on iso plays.
DiMarco saw a bigger role in the Falcons passing game in 2015, even if he only saw 16 targets on the year. As with all NFL 1000 grading, we looked at what DiMarco did when on the field, and in those 16 targets he caught 13 passes and didn't drop one ball. He's not a great route-runner but has been a reliable receiver when used.
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