The NFL Fullback Isn't Dead Yet
As NFL offenses favor the passing game more and more, the fullback has become something of a football anachronism. And yet the position is far from extinct. It's simply evolving.
Photo by Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
A highly unusual occurrence highlighted the NFL's season kickoff last month between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos. The Broncos, facing a third-and-one early in the second quarter, lined up in an old-school I-formation. They then gave the ball to rookie fullback Andy Janovich, who ran a dive—a traditional short-yardage running play designed to thrust him straight into the line of scrimmage.
But as he barreled into the right side of the line, where he might have expected to plow into a pile of defenders, a funny thing happened: Janovich raced 28 yards for a touchdown, virtually untouched.
The I-formation and even the fullback dive used to be staples of NFL offenses; think Frank Hawkins or Kenny King lining up in front of Marcus Allen for the Raiders, or Daryl Johnston getting set to clear a path for Emmitt Smith. But as coaches at all levels of the sport have turned to passing and in particular to spread formations, fullbacks and the power running game have become something of a football anachronism. Fullbacks rarely carry the ball, though that's nothing new—in his 14-year career with the Seattle Seahawks, Mack Strong never had more than 37 carries in a single season—but today it's harder than ever for them to get on the field in the first place. Nearly half of the NFL's teams currently don't carry a single player listed as a fullback on their rosters.
And yet, as Janovich's touchdown showed, the fullback is far from extinct, or even endangered. The position is simply evolving, again.
There once was a time when fullbacks were primary ball carriers in NFL offenses. The role typically fell to bigger backs who were capable of playing a hard-charging, physical style. Jim Brown, perhaps the greatest running back the game has ever seen, played fullback. Larry Czonka, Franco Harris, John Riggins—all were Super Bowl MVPs in the 1970s and 80s, and all were fullbacks.
At the same time, in the late 1970s, the NFL implemented the Mel Blount Rule, which confined press coverage to within five yards of the line of scrimmage, thereby making it easier to throw downfield. Passing innovations like Air Coryell, the West Coast offense, and the run-and-shoot took root. Yet the fullback—and the power running game—still had a place in the league's offensive firmament. By the time Mack Strong took his first snap with the Seahawks in 1994, the fullback role had been reconfigured as a blocker, a pass catcher, and "probably third as a runner," Strong told me.
The 1990s saw several players, including Strong, carve out noteworthy careers as fullbacks, like Lorenzo Neal, William Henderson, Tony Richardson, and Mike Alstott. All thrived as short-yardage runners and as targets for screens or passes into the flat. Strong himself had six seasons where he caught at least 20 catches, five of them coming after his 30th birthday—a period that coincided with five straight Seahawks playoff appearances and a trip to the Super Bowl. He played on all of Seattle's special teams units, too. But there was no denying what the fullback's primary responsibility was.
"Blocking is the key," Strong said. "Every fullback seems to understand that."
The modern NFL offense, however, places less of a priority on blocking from the backfield in and of itself. Recent trends have increased the value of players with more versatility on the field, players with the speed to play in the slot or even out wide, but who also can stay in to pass protect when a given situation might warrant it.
"It's definitely been frustrating to watch the league become more of a passing league," Strong said.
There's no arguing that's the direction the NFL has been headed. More and more, teams are using formations with additional receivers, and running plays that call for shorter, quicker throws. Writing about the slot receiver for The Ringer this summer, Danny Kelly noted that the share of personnel groupings with three or more receivers has increased every year since 2010. There's a simple reason for the proliferation of these sets: they spread out defenses and force them to counter by playing extra defensive backs.
"NFL offenses continually evolve toward efficiency," Kelly wrote. "As teams try to exploit all the space on the field, the three-wide-receiver set has become far and away the league's most frequently utilized personnel grouping" because it "increases an offense's ability to pass while maintaining the option to run."
Coupled with the NFL's decision in 2014 to double down on penalizing illegal contact by defenders after five yards, and it's easy to see why the league has become so pass-happy. By 2013, "11 personnel," or formations that include just one running back and one tight end—and thus three receivers—were being used across the league 51 percent of the time, per Football Outsiders. In 2015, that number jumped to 55 percent. The "11" was the most popular personnel grouping last season for all but three teams: the Patriots, the Jets, and the Titans. And of those three, the Jets most often used sets with one back and no tight ends, while the Pats and Titans favored "12 personnel," or one back and two tight ends.
That doesn't leave much room on the field for fullbacks, and stats bear that out. As recently as 2012, Raiders fullback Marcel Reece played 61 percent of the Oakland's offensive snaps. By comparison, the Panthers' Mike Tolbert led all fullbacks last year with just 38.3 percent of his team's snap count. Fourteen NFL teams currently don't have a fullback on their roster, up from ten a year ago.
Teams still need to get some blocking outside their offensive lines, however, and that's where player versatility at other positions comes in. With only 46 players allowed to dress on game days, teams have had to get creative with their fullbacks. At the beginning of the season, for example, the Seahawks shuffled fullback Will Tukuafu and defensive tackle/fullback Tani Tupou on and off the roster to cover the position week to week. Both have since been waived or released, though, so Seattle now does not have a fullback on the roster.
The Jets don't currently have a fullback on their roster, either, having cut Tommy Bohanon, who manned the position for three years, just before the start of the regular season. But they have made good use of wideout Quincy Enunwa (No. 81) in a hybrid role because he can play more physically than a typical wide receiver.
On this play, Enunwa lined up before the snap as the Z (strong-side) receiver and began to motion across the formation before he stopped and came back to position himself as an H-back off the line of scrimmage, just outside the Jets' two tight ends. Notice that it was Enunwa's block of Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor that allowed running back Bilal Powell to get outside for a five-yard gain—exactly the kind of role a lead-blocking fullback typically might have played in the past:
Then there are the Eagles. They also do not have a fullback, but they have tapped backup defensive tackle Beau Allen (No. 94) to do the job in certain short-yardage situations:
Gil Brandt, a player personnel executive for the Dallas Cowboys for nearly 30 years who now works as a senior analyst for NFL.com, has noticed teams using tight ends in a hybrid H-back role to supplant the fullback—think Ryan Hewitt of the Bengals, or the Giants and their tight ends. At 6-foot-4 and 247 pounds, Hewitt is built more like a tight end, the position he played at Stanford. A taller, quicker player like Hewitt can be more useful than a straight fullback because the Bengals can deploy him in different ways, depending on whether they want to pound the ball on the ground or spread a team out and throw it.
Take a look at how the Bengals move Hewitt around. Here he is in the backfield (No. 89) before the snap, motioning into the slot at the bottom of the screen:
"What [the H-back] does, is it gives teams four probably better athletes on the field at one time," Brandt said. "And so, consequently, I think people with the spread are looking for people that can catch footballs. Historically, I think fullbacks are blocking-type guys. I'm not sure they're as athletic as that tight end that can shift back to that position.
"It's just a difference in how we're approaching the game. We're throwing the ball so much more. We're probably passing over 50 percent of the time. And if you're passing over 50 percent of the time, do you want a run blocker or a pass receiver?"
This evolution isn't unique to the NFL; the spread offense has been embraced everywhere in football, from college to high school on down. That, in turn, has "erased the traditional fullback from the amateur football landscape," said Rob Rang, a talent evaluator who does draft analysis for The Sports Xchange and CBSSports.com. And, of course, what's happening at the game's lower levels has a ripple effect on the NFL, and the kind of players the league will get.
But just as fullbacks have fallen out of doesn't mean they're completely dying off. Teams continue to draft them; no fewer than two have been selected every year since 2004. NFL teams drafted four fullbacks in 2015 and this year they took three. Teams have also long been able to find quality fullbacks outside the draft: Tolbert entered the league with the Chargers after going undrafted in 2008; the Saints' John Kuhn came into the league in 2005 as a Steelers undrafted free agent. Even Strong, who had teamed with Garrison Hearst and Terrell Davis at Georgia, went undrafted before signing on with the Seahawks.
After drafting Janovich in the sixth round of the draft this year, Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak has made no secret of his desire to incorporate him into the offense. The rookie has played 38.2 percent of the snaps through five games. (He also has played on nearly 70 percent of the Broncos' special teams snaps so far.) The Broncos obviously want to run the ball plenty to supplement their young quarterbacks, Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch, but Kubiak also wants to use Janovich strategically to counter the sub packages many defenses are using against most "11" and "12" personnel sets. Per Football Outsiders, five or more defensive backs were used 65 percent of the time last season to counter offenses' trend toward the use of additional pass catchers. Which meant fewer snaps for natural pass rushers, and an increasing reliance on linebacker-safety hybrids and pass rushers who are smaller and faster.
Early last month, Kubiak told reporters that pairing Janovich in the backfield with running back C.J. Anderson has effectively forced teams back into their base packages. "It's just a little bit different; you're running against more base schemes than you are against nickel schemes so [it's] a little bit of change up for everybody," he said.
It's not just the Broncos. While the Titans have used fullback Jalston Fowler on only 19.2 percent of their snaps, they are playing power football this season (albeit stubbornly, given that quarterback Marcus Mariota has the ideal skill set for a spread offense). Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, ever the tinkerer, has long understood the value of having a fullback, even as the game has been moving in the other direction. The team brought back fullback James Develin after he missed last season because of injury and made good use of him in their Week 3 blowout of the Texans. The Cowboys drafted power runner Ezekiel Elliott No. 4 overall this year, and Elliott is currently the league's leading rusher. Falcons fullback Patrick DiMarco played a season-high 40.3 percent of Atlanta's snaps in Sunday's win at Denver. And even though the Saints have thrown the ball on 65.7 percent of their offensive plays this season, Kuhn proved to be exactly what they needed to keep the Chargers off-balance in a Week 4 win: He rushed three times for five yards, with two of those runs going for one-yard touchdowns. Kuhn also caught a four-yard pass that went for another score. And he either caught a pass or rushed for three short-yardage third-down conversions.
For all the passing going on in the NFL, running the ball still has plenty of value, especially in short-yardage situations. Entering the 2016 season, Football Outsiders' data showed that runs were converting on third-and-one 36 percent more often than passes. And on third and fourth downs with one or two yards to go, a run had been more successful 40 percent of the time.
"In today's NFL, you must be versatile," Rang said. "You have to be able to put out multiple fronts to counter your weekly opponents. I think the role [of fullback] is decreasing, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's less important."
And for young players coming into the league, a similar flexibility might be required in order to fill that role. Strong believes that some running backs can be converted into fullbacks when they transition to the NFL. "A guy might be talented enough to be able to run the football in college, but in the pro level he may not have what the personnel people want in an NFL tailback," he said.
"I think it's going to put more of an emphasis on scouting the individual traits," Rang said. Can a tight end like Hewitt, a receiver like Enunwa, or a defensive lineman like Allen get in the backfield and throw a block? Can a smaller, faster running back who primarily ran and caught the ball in college learn to better block opponents as a pro? The league will always need someone who can fill that role, even if the position looks nothing like it did when an old-school fullback like Mack Strong was doing it.
Right now, Strong said, the fullback is "like a changeup in baseball—a change from the norm," or a way to catch a team off-guard, like the Broncos did to the Panthers with Janovich's touchdown run, or the way the Saints strategically deployed Kuhn to beat the Chargers. Ever the prideful fullback, Strong even believes the pendulum might one day swing back in favor of his former position. "Things are cyclical," he said. "You see things fade and things come back."
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