As Tony Richardson and Lorenzo Neal survey the NFL landscape, they must feel like dinosaurs. That's not only because the grizzled fullbacks are entering their 15th and 17th seasons, respectively, but because they're playing a position that's on the verge of extinction in the league.
A quick review of NFL rosters reveals that the influx of spread formations and multiple tight end sets has diminished the fullback's role in modern offenses. By extensively running from one-back sets or hybrid two-back formations (a second tight end lines up as a quasi-fullback), offensive coordinators have found ways to build a ground attack without using a traditional fullback. In fact, the Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinals function without a fullback. Interestingly, both ranked near the bottom of the league in rushing offense last season, averaging less than 80 yards per game.
A team can produce a formidable rushing attack without a fullback, but having a quality lead blocker enhances its chances. It isn't a coincidence that the NFL's top 10 rushing offenses last season each featured a fullback.
The types of fullbacks who currently exist in the NFL can be broken into two categories: traditional and hybrids.
Traditional fullbacks are physical lead blockers who specialize in paving the way on power runs. They carry a nasty disposition and love the bang-bang contact that happens on each snap. While traditional fullbacks often lack the running skills of their brethren, their physical attributes help make downhill running games effective. Madison Hedgecock (New York Giants), Ovie Mughelli (Atlanta Falcons) and Moran Norris (San Francisco 49ers) are a few examples of traditional fullbacks.
Hybrid fullbacks bring multifaceted skills to the table. They can line up as blockers, but they also can function as runners or receivers in one-back sets. Hybrids often are former tailbacks (or tight ends) who are turned to fullbacks because of their exceptional size and athleticism. They are capable of running the belly or dive from a two-back formation, and they can function as the single back in a four-minute offense.
Although they bring an added dimension to the offense with their versatility, hybrid fullbacks typically are regarded as finesse blockers in the running game. Teams using hybrids often employ zone-based blocking schemes, so being a sledgehammer isn't necessarily required. Leonard Weaver (Philadelphia Eagles), Peyton Hillis (Denver Broncos) and Jacob Hester (San Diego Chargers) fall into the hybrid category.
Regardless of the category, fullbacks often are undervalued because of their diminished role. Most play just 10 to 12 snaps on offense because of the extensive use of three- and four-receiver sets, which often replace the fullback with an extra receiver or tight end. Few starting fullbacks are picked high in the draft, so many ascend from the ranks of the undrafted to become eventual starters (Jason McKie of the Chicago Bears and Vonta Leach of the Houston Texans are two examples). This is partially because of the proliferation of spread offenses in the college game, which renders the fullback non-existent.
With few prospective fullbacks in the pipeline, NFL teams have taken to converting linebackers into lead blockers. While former linebackers lack some of the running or receiving skills typically associated with the fullback position, they bring the requisite toughness and physical presence. In addition, their experience on defense makes them ideal candidates to function as top special-teams players, and that added value justifies their presence on the roster.
Korey Hall (Green Bay Packers), Spencer Larsen (Broncos) and Mike Sellers (Washington Redskins) are former defenders who successfully transitioned to fullback. Hall and Larsen excelled as linebackers during their collegiate careers before switching to fullback as pros. Sellers, a nine-year NFL veteran who earned his first Pro Bowl berth in 2008, spent three seasons in the Canadian Football League as a running back/defensive end before joining the Redskins in 1998. Though Hall, Larsen and Sellers all developed into solid lead blockers as pros, their ability to lead their respective special-teams units has made them invaluable members of their rosters.
A fullback's value also is enhanced by the strong bond that develops between runner and blocker. Top tailbacks implicitly trust their fullbacks to make the correct blocks, and that chemistry often results in positive gains. Therefore, it's not a coincidence that many of the top rushers have benefitted from playing behind a top fullback and why some struggle after the team switches lead blockers.
LaDainian Tomlinson and Thomas Jones are perfect examples of runners who suffered different fates after their teams changed fullbacks.
Tomlinson led the league with 1,815 rushing yards in 2006 with four-time Pro Bowler Neal as his fullback. Tomlinson then saw his yards-per-carry average dip from 4.7 in 2007 -- Neal's final season in San Diego -- to 3.8 in 2008 with rookies Hester and Mike Tolbert serving as the Chargers' lead blockers. Although Tomlinson's dip in production can't completely be attributed to the replacement of his fullback, the lack of chemistry between the five-time Pro Bowler and the rookies was apparent as the veteran often hesitated in the hole. Tomlinson also was routinely stopped near the line of scrimmage for minimal gains.
On the other hand, Jones benefitted from the New York Jets' 2008 addition of Richardson, a four-time Pro Bowl fullback who has paved the way for several 1,000-yard running backs, including Adrian Peterson, Larry Johnson and Priest Holmes. Last season, Richardson helped Jones rush for an AFC-leading 1,312 yards as the fullback's ability to pummel linebackers in the hole enabled the running back to make easy cuts on downhill runs. In 2007, Jones averaged a pedestrian 3.6 yards per carry and produced just two runs over 20 yards. With Richardson paving the way in 2008, Jones upped his yards-per-carry average to 4.5 and surpassed the 100-yard mark in five games.
Fullbacks have been regarded as an endangered species for years, but history continues to show that they are relevant in today's NFL. With the running game back in vogue, fullbacks should continue to fight off extinction for the next few years.