What Has Happened to the NFL Fullback?

Paul PreibisiusAnalyst IFebruary 1, 2010

At one time in the NFL's evolution, a strong fullback was as valuable to a team as nearly any "skill" position players. 

They primarily punched open holes for 1,000-yard running backs, but also showed the capacity to catch outlet passes and pound home touchdowns on goal-line carries and first downs on short-yardage.

Teams are now evolving their offenses in ways not kind to the traditional fullback.  At present, many teams have no true fullback at all on their roster, and when they do, he is seeing fewer and fewer snaps.  Frequently, teams have been turning to the versatile H-back in lieu of a true NFL fullback.

The dawn of the tandem back system over a lone workhorse also leads to more formations with two running backs behind center over a genuine lead-blocker.  Teams are also spreading to use more one-back three wide sets or running behind two-tight end formations.

Le'Ron McClain, the AFC’s Pro Bowl selection at fullback, is a restricted free agent who could easily see teams throw money at him to play in more of a ball-carrier role.  McClain’s departure for carries would be something never dreamed of by the man he replaced, the epitome of the grizzled old fullback—Lorenzo Neal.

Among the Super Bowl teams, New Orleans lost their opening stay starter (and among the NFL’s better fullbacks) in Heath Evans after Week Seven. 

The result was seven more consecutive wins and two playoff victories behind Kyle Eckel, who didn’t even play in three of the team’s Evans-less games. Listed behind Eckel on the fullback depth chart is Dave Thomas, who is, in fact, a tight end.

The other team still alive in the playoffs goes one better.  Indianapolis has no listed fullback on its roster.  The team made very minimal use of the running game at all, putting up the league’s 32nd ranked rushing attack across the regular season.

As the Lorenzo Neals and Tony Richardsons of the league age (39 and 28, respectively), few players are stepping into that dedicated head-bashing role.  Of Sporting News magazine’s 10 best fullbacks, nearly half (four) were converted from other positions.  That percentage goes up when looking deeper down the list.

An increased emphasis on passing the football makes it difficult to put as much time and effort into finding and developing a fullback as other positions that are going to see more snaps and act in a greater role.

The rise and proliferation of the spread offense in college (taking pass-centric football one step further) makes elite players out of college rare at this position. 

Hard-nosed hitters are groomed to be linebackers instead.  Big 240-260 pounders that can carry the football are staying on as true running backs instead of getting the Csonka/Nagurski treatment.

The roots of this go as far back as the early 1980s.  Joe Gibbs, head coach of the Washington Redskins, took ideas developed by other head coaches and popularized it.  He utilized a mobile H-back instead of an actual fullback.  This was paired with various receiver alignments to create mismatches against opposing offenses.

This system not only was effective in passing the football, but proved that an offense spread into more pass-centric formations could still effectively run the football, as John Riggins spent the four year Washington tenure of his Hall of Fame career playing within this new Gibbs system.

The Redskins' success in a system used mostly out of necessity (limited talent at fullback and great tight end types) encouraged other teams to delve into more limited back sets.

The rise of the West Coast offense gave some respite for the fullback position.  The position as used by Bill Walsh has great use for a multi-purpose fullback who will catch, run, and lead block in equal capacity.

Modern times have slipped away from that, however, even with the West Coast system remaining popular.  The last time a fullback was drafted in the first round was 1994, that player (William Floyd) was just a pair of names short of being a second-rounder himself, going as the 28th pick.

This year should be no different.  Among the NFL’s fullback prospects, Pittsburgh’s Doren Dickerson, Florida Atlantic’s Willie Rose, and Maryland’s Cory Jackson are the only fullbacks projected to even potentially see the sixth round.  All others are considered bound for the seventh round or rookie free agency.

The last Hall of Fame fullback goes back much further.  Larry Csonka, 31 years retired, is the last to be inducted.  He shares the pseudo-running back role that the other Hall of Fame fullbacks were given.  No pure blocking fullback has ever got in on a Hall of Fame ballot.  Perhaps Lorenzo Neal’s eventual retirement can change that. 

For now, we will have to watch and wait as the fullback slips away from another offense or two every year.