10 Most Versatile NFL Fullbacks of All-Time

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IFebruary 14, 2012

10 Most Versatile NFL Fullbacks of All-Time

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    In the NFL, it's all about versatility. 

    Supremely accurate passers inside the pocket are great; supremely accurate passers who can also scramble around, like Aaron Rodgers, are better.

    Linebackers that rack up 10 sacks are Pro Bowlers; linebackers who rack up 10 sacks and can play the pass are coveted by every NFL team. 

    So, fullbacks who can open holes for the tailback are excellent. But those fullbacks who can also protect the quarterback in the passing game and pick up a few yards on the ground or as a receiver are top notch.

    These are the 10 most versatile in NFL history, with the emphasis being on VERSATILE. In that case, several Hall of Famers and iconic fullbacks—those whose primary responsibility was to run the ball—aren't going to make this list. 

    It's hard to keep Jim Brown, Earl Campbell and Franco Harris off this list, but they weren't exactly complete fullbacks.

No. 10: Tony Richardson

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    Career: 1995-2010

    Teams: Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets

    Stats: 429 carries, 1,272 yards rushing, 210 catches, 1,543 yards, 24 TD

    Ultimately, Richardson's greatest legacy in the NFL was as the lead blocker in that powerful Chiefs rushing attack, first headed by Priest Holmes, then Larry Johnson. 

    But he also showed an ability to handle the rock on his own.

    In 2000, he led the Chiefs in attempts and rushing yards, and finished third on the team with 58 receptions. 

No. 9: Keith Lincoln

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    Career: 1961-1969

    Teams: San Diego Chargers, Buffalo Bills

    Stats: 758 carries, 3,383 yards, 165 catches, 2,250 yards, 38 TD

    Few contemporary NFL fans know that Keith Lincoln recorded one of the greatest single games in the history of the playoffs. 

    (Yes, I realize that technically, this entry isn't about an NFL fullback, because the Chargers were an AFL team during Lincoln's days, but that is splitting hairs.)

    In the 1963 AFL Title Game against the Patriots, Lincoln ran for 206 yards on just 13 carries and added seven catches for 123 yards. He totalled two touchdowns in the Chargers' 51-10 drubbing of Boston. 

    But Lincoln was also a tremendous asset as a blocker in the Sid Gillman's explosive passing game and opened up holes for Paul Lowe to win the AFL rushing title in 1965. 

No. 8: Merril Hoge

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    Career: 1987-1994

    Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Bears

    Stats: 825 carries, 3,139 yards, 254 catches, 2,133 yards, 34 TD

    Hoge's career was cut short by multiple concussions, but prior to leaving Pittsburgh for Chicago, he was the lead blocker for Barry Foster, who set the franchise record with 1,690 yards in 1992. 

    And before Foster's emergence in Ron Erhardt's offense, Hoge led the Steelers in rushing yards and carries three times between 1988 and 1991. During that same period, he led the team in receptions once and finished second in the team twice.

    At no other time was Hoge's versatility more evident than the 1989 playoffs. In a divisional playoff game that season, he racked up 200 total yards in a narrow loss at Denver. 

No. 7: Daryl Johnston

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    Career: 1989-1999

    Teams: Dallas Cowboys

    Stats: 294 carries, 2,227 yards, 232 catches, 753 yards, 22 TD

    In terms of carrying the football, Johnston took a back seat to future Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. And after Jay Novachek and Alvin Harper, there weren't that many balls to go around in the Dallas offense.

    But he did catch his share of passes from Troy Aikman and occasionally picked up the first down or even a touchdown in short-yardage situations. 

    Still, Moose's bread and butter was opening up holes for Smith or keeping Aikman upright as the Cowboys dynasty became the first to win three Super Bowls in four years. 

No. 6: John L. Williams

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    Career: 1986-1995

    Teams: Seattle Seahawks, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Stats: 1,245 carries, 5,006 yards, 456 catches, 4,656 yards, 37 TD

    Williams began his career as the fullback for Curt Warner, who went to the Pro Bowl in each of Williams' first two seasons. And although the Steeler team he went to in 1994 didn't have a superstar runner, they led the NFL in rushing thanks in part to Williams' presence. 

    But Williams was also a productive ball carrier, recording more than 700 yards on the ground three times in Seattle and leading the Seahawks in receptions three times as well. 

No. 5: Larry Centers

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    Career: 1990-2003

    Teams: Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals, Washington Redskins, Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots

    Stats: 615 carries, 2,188 yards, 827 catches, 6,797 yards, 42 TD

    Centers is probably the greatest receiving fullback of all-time. He set a record with 101 catches in 1995, followed that up with 99 the next season and he finished his career with more catches than Steve Largent, Shannon Sharpe and Michael Irvin. 

    But that's not enough to earn a "versatility" title.

    Centers was a decent runner on bad Cardinals teams, averaging over 100 carries per season between 1994 and 1997, and he also blocked for 1,000-yard rushers Adiran Murrell, Stephen Davis and Travis Henry. 

No. 4: Alan Ameche

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    Career: 1955-1960

    Teams: Baltimore Colts

    Stats: 954 carries, 4,045 yards, 101 catches, 773 yards, 44 TD

    Ameche is famous for scoring one of the most important touchdowns in NFL history: the overtime winner to defeat the Giants in the 1958 NFL Title Game.

    And he was a tremendous ball carrier; not just a short-yardage or goal-line. After winning the Heisman at Wisconsin, he led the NFL in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and carries in his rookie season.

    But in that offense—especially in that era—he was also required to block, and Lenny Moore, Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry all benefitted from the Horse's presence. 

No. 3: Mike Alstott

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    Career: 1996-2006

    Teams: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Stats: 1,359 carries, 5,088 yards, 305 catches, 2,284 yards, 71 TD

    Alstott's critics will say that he was overrated. After all, he never recorded a 1,000-yard season as a runner, only caught more than 35 passes once and was not an elite blocker.

    But he was very good, even if he wasn't great, at all the important phases of being a fullback. He had seven 100-yard games, rushed for 949 yards in 1999, caught 65 passes as a rookie and earned six straight Pro Bowl spots. 

    As for the most important role of a fullback, he wouldn't have been out there paving the way for Warrick Dunn, Michael Pittman and Cadillac Williams if he wasn't a strong blocker.

    At fullback, tail back, halfback and quarterback during his prime, there wasn't a better runner near the goal line. 

No. 2: Keith Byars

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    Career: 1986-1998

    Teams: Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets

    Stats: 865 carries, 3,109 yards, 610 catches, 5,661 yards, 54 TD

    Byars remains one of the most underrated players of the last quarter century. 

    He was a competent blocker for those Eagles teams of the late 1980s, early 1990s teams and contributed where he could as a runner. One of the best games of his career came in a much-hyped 1989 showdown with the 6-1 Broncos in Mile High. Byars collected 93 yards on 23 carries and rushed for two touchdowns, including the game-winner late in the fourth quarter. 

    But Byars greatest contribution came in the passing game. For the eight seasons between 1988 and 1995, he averaged 62 catches and 588 yards per year. 

No. 1: Tom Rathman

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    Career: 1986-1994

    Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Raiders

    Stats: 544 carries, 2,020 yards, 320 catches, 2,684 yards, 34 TD

    The stats don't blow you away, but the role that Rathman played on a dynasty should.

    He aided the running game, grabbing a few carries when Roger Craig and Ricky Watters weren't the focus. Woody (nicknamed that because of his resemblance to the Cheers television character) was good for 80 or so carries and 350 or so yards on the ground.

    Rathman was also a reliable pass-catcher. On the 1989 49ers team, one of the greatest offenses in NFL history, he was second only to Jerry Rice in receptions and third in receiving yards.

    But Rathman's greatest contribution was as a blocker. He opened holes for Craig and Watters and was something of a personal protector in the backfield for both Joe Montana and Steve Young.