NFL Tight End or Fullback: Will Lead Blockers Regain Their Value in Modern Game?

Ben LorimerSenior Analyst IIFebruary 14, 2011

Grinding out the tough yards
Grinding out the tough yardsMarc Serota/Getty Images

For most of the last decade, the position of full back has been slowly squeezed from the NFL.

As more and more emphasis is placed on the passing game, a position which revolves around blocking gets left by the wayside.

At the same time, the role of a receiving tight end in the mold of Tony Gonzalez or Kellen Winslow has exploded onto the scene. They are making highlight reels and stats lists; to the average Joe sports-watcher, seem to have a far greater effect on the outcome of a game than a mere run blocker.

The tides of change may be starting to lap at the edges of the NFL, spear headed by Rashard Mendenhall's comments at the start of the season regarding this. He stated a desire to play with a full back as his lead blocker rather than a tight end on the line and this has been justified by the success of Arian Foster, who consistently had Vonta Leach blocking in front of him.

One of the most popular run-heavy formations in the NFL at the moment is having a single back and two tight ends aligned on the same side.

The premise is that the back runs towards the side of the tight ends, who can seal off the defensive linemen and linebackers who flow across, and leave the running back to beat the defensive backs to gain yards.

This formation is far too predictable, as defenses can load up towards the strong side and the running back has no blocker clearing a path.

However, a full back is positioned directly in front of the half back. This means that he sees what the ball carrier does and can tailor his blocking to the hole the half back should take.

Secondly, while a tight end will generally contain the edge when run blocking, or chip the defensive end before moving to the second level. The full back will normally take out the first linebacker to fill the hole which the ball carrier will hit. This means gaps stay open longer.

Another positive is the formation is more balanced. The offense can block just as well to either side of the offensive line, and the defense is spread thinner.

What's more, a full back can also be a de facto power back, as they generally weigh in at more than 250 pounds. This means that offenses can gain the tough short yard, or play smash mouth football out of their base formation. This means less visual cues for the defense to key into short runs, and more success running them.

It also means that a smaller, faster, better receiver can be played at half back, since the marquee running back is relieved of the burden of inside power running.

This change will improve the passing game, as running backs like LeSean McCoy and Jahvid Best can consistently make 50 catches and 500 receiving yards a season.

The full back is generally also a consummate blocker in the passing game; an increasingly important role of the running back is blitz pick up and full backs are simply better at this than half backs. Playing a full back means that the half back can be used more in the passing game to provide a safety blanket for the receiver, while still retaining adequate quarterback protection.

The presence of a full back is typically aligned with running the football, so if he is in the formation, the defense thinks primarily about their run responsibilities. This makes play action more effective and will in fact open up the passing game downfield for wide receivers.

Mike Allstott made a career as a very capable three-down performer who could run block, grind out yards inside, pick up blitzers and even catch the ball out of the backfield. Now the torch has been passed onto Peyton Hillis and John Kuhn, and I hope that they are given every opportunity to perform in their natural position.

I believe that most teams would be better off playing a versatile full back in 60 to 70 percent of their formations. It need not be a specialist full back either.

Athletic tight ends who can block like Heath Miller, Brandon Pettigrew or Rob Gronkowski also fit the bill.