How fullbacks are valued (and devalued) in today’s NFL

By | July 1, 2022
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Over the last two decades, the fullback position has become an anomaly. Only a few teams in today’s game even have them on their roster let alone giving them consistent reps. On average, fullbacks that do see the field are only out there for 25% of their offensive snaps throughout a season.

In the early decades of the NFL, fullbacks were a critical part of the offenses, but when coaches started finding more efficient ways to score, they no longer relied on power on the ground to convert first downs and touchdowns. They went to the air instead. The more points, the better.

Today, almost no fullbacks even get selected in the draft. There has only been one fullback drafted over the last four years — the Baltimore Ravens selected Ben Mason in the fifth round in the 2021 NFL draft; and he was waived in less than a year.

They do say that history repeats itself, and since there is a need for faster and lighter linebackers, the fullback position may find its way back onto rosters in an attempt to counter defensive speed, with power.

It’s time to go over the top fullbacks around the league right now, how do they help their offenses win in the modern NFL, and where those trends might be going.

The do-it-all guy: Kyle Juszczyk, San Francisco 49ers

(Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

Kyle Juszczyk is on the top of the fullback list because of his versatility and how much that is valued in Kyle Shanahan’s offence. One of the main reasons why the fullback position is becoming harder to justify is because of the unique physique and how limited most at the position are in space. Yet, Juszczyk is a perfect fit in the 49ers’ offense because of those exact traits — his ball skills and blocking in space. He is the most utilized registered fullback on this listing over 700 snaps this season, which means the 49ers included him 56% of all offensive snaps.

A fullback is a perfect addition to any play-action offense because of their main responsibility, clearing the lane for running backs. With a fullback on the field, the defense will anticipate the run, and since Juszczyk can do it all at a high level, including catching the ball, his versatility is perfect with the 49ers play-action schemes. With enough reps for their fullback, defenses have another kind of player they have to plan to stop.

Juszczyk not having many limitations makes it easy for the 49ers to move the ball out of one single formation, not giving away the potential outcome.

Watch on this play where Juszczyk is in the backfield then he motions out into the slot. The Tennessee Titans were playing Cover-3 zone defense on this play, where the cornerbacks were responsible for their third of the field.

Since Shanahan had Juszczyk run a wheel route in the cornerbacks’ deep third, and two receivers were attacking the middle of the field, the defensive backs stepped forward which left the deep right part of the wide open field.

If only Jimmy Garoppolo could have made this throw…

Last season, the 49ers run the fourth ball most in the NFL at 48.39%. According to Sharp Football Stats, they also uses 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two receivers) on 34% of their total plays, which was the most in the NFL (425 plays).

Juszczyk on the field forces defenses to anticipate a third dimension of running game and causes misdirection behind the line of scrimage. That’s what puts him at the top of the list.

The elite run-blocker: Patrick Ricard, Baltimore Ravens

(Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

Each fullback in today’s game (outside of Juszczyk, who does everything) has one area of ​​their game where they can be extremely effective in today’s NFL, but they also must have a skillset to counter that.

Ricard is a run-blocking specialist who can also catch the ball downfield. He had the second most snaps out of all fullbacks in 2021 with 554. He has paved the way for the Baltimore Ravens’ backfield, one of the NFL’s best and most versatile.

As the years go on, if linebackers in the NFL are asked to be faster and lighter, focusing on speed, there is a good chance that fullbacks could be relevant again. Offenses could once again focus on controlling the clock as they keep the ball on the ground, rather than trying to just score as quickly as possible.

The receiver: CJ Ham, Minnesota Vikings

(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

CJ Ham’s main strength is his receiving, and his counter is run blocking.

If there was one power back who adapted the most to today’s game, it’s Ham. Some of the guys on this list have converted from tight end to fullback, but Ham has always been in the backfield. In college, he played as a fullback and also as a running back with an ability to catch downfield.

Unfortunately, speed was his downfall. So, Ham showed how effective he was blocking and then also making a big splash in the passing game.

This sequence of plays were from the same drive. Same personnel, but different formations and play calls.

Here, Ham is lined up in the backfield directly behind the quarterback. At the snap, Ham fakes a lead block to the left side of the line but then counters opening up in the flat. This grabs the attention of the linebackers forcing them to over-pursue opening up the tight end underneath.

The Vikings do a great job using Ham to attack the linebackers, forcing them to maintain coverage in all three levels of the field; behind the line of scrimmage, short yardage and the deep over.

Minnesota’s fullback will remain useful as a lead blocker and a change of pace as a receiver.

The catalyst: Jakob Johnson, New England Patriots/Las Vegas Raiders

(Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

As mentioned above, most fullbacks in today’s game have more than one skillset and this is true, unless your coach is Bill Belichick. Jakob Johnson is a blocker and his counter strength is more blocking. It took a lot for me to add Johnson to this list of fullbacks because he is most like an H-back tight end. He finished the 2021 season with only four receptions and has never carried the ball in his three-year NFL career.

The reason why I decided to include him is because of the way Belichick used him when he was on the Patriots. Johnson was brought in when the offense couldn’t move the ball through the air. In 2020, the Patriots ranked their lowest offensively since the year 2000. After Tom Brady left, their identity needed to change in order to remain competitive. So they decided to focus on running the ball and over the last two years, Belichick included Johnson in 32% of the total offensive snaps.

Since Rhamondre Stevenson isn’t the fastest back but has very good vision to navigate around blocks in the gap run scheme, Johnson was brought in to lead the way and hit the holes first.

This play tied as the longest run of the day.

On the very next play, the Patriots came out in the same look but in reverse. As Johnson went across the line of scrimmage, he picked up the most important player on the Cowboys defense who would have gotten to the first ballcarrier, Parsons.

Belichick decided to hand it off eight times during this 13 play drive, and eventually ending in a touchdown to put the Patriots up by one point. Even though they weren’t able to get the win, this drive allowed them to put the game in overtime and Johnson played a huge part in the rushing attack.

The Raiders, now coached by former New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, signed Johnson to a one-year deal in March after Belichick reduced the fullback position from his plans.

The fullback of the future

(Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports)

There are a few other fullbacks around the league who didn’t make this list. When looking at effectiveness, I required a snap minimum of 150. Michael Burton, Derek Watt, and Alec Ingold are all honorable mentions but didn’t hit that requirement.

The days of featured fullbacks like Larry Csonka, John Riggins, Peyton Hillis, Mike Alstott, and Le’Ron McLain are over. As of right now, the fullback position is being replaced by bigger running backs who have the speed to get to the edge and who are big enough to bulldoze their way through the trenches, like Derrick Henry and Jonathan Taylor.

Teams that don’t have power three-down backs are most likely using depth at their tight end position, as a flex. We’re seeing most of them convert from college tight ends who can block but also can get downfield and catch the ball.

Hopefully in the next decade as the linebacker position becomes more about vertical speed, the window might open up again for power. Offenses will look for fullbacks who can slowly chip away at conversions while the coaches manage the clock, keeping ball away from the other team altogether.

It’s true that fullbacks may never return in their full past form. But there will always be those coaches who have their favorable schemes, and if we continue to counter the continuous innovation in football, there may one day be a necessity for the fullback to be featured again.

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Category: NFL

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