Fullbacks back en vogue
Low draft numbers aside, position enjoying resurgence as teams strive for toughness
Even before Pittsburgh Steelers 1,000-yard tailback Rashard Mendenhall noted at an organized team activities workout last week that he liked to have a lead blocker ahead of him, the fullback position was making a comeback of sorts in the NFL.
But the preference of Mendenhall -- who told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that "as a running back, you want a fullback" -- is the latest important endorsement of a position that in recent seasons had gone the way of the woolly mammoth.
The Steelers, who under coordinator Bruce Arians prefer to have a tight end handle most of the blocking chores once associated with a fullback, are one of a handful of NFL clubs without a fullback on their roster. That number could further dwindle this year, with the Indianapolis Colts considering adding a conventional fullback to an offense that has vowed to become bigger and more physical in the running game, especially in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Even the Steelers are experimenting with a fullback.
The Colts also have employed a second tight end or an H-back at the fullback slot for the past several seasons.
"I think part of [the fullback renaissance] it is that you're saying to teams, 'We're going to line up and flat-out knock you off the ball.' As much as the passing game has become so [prevalent] in the NFL these days, you still need that mentality," said Lorenzo Neal, who retired two years ago after playing for seven NFL teams and appearing in four Pro Bowl in 16 seasons.
Despite the proliferation of three-wide receiver and two-tight end offenses, nearly two-thirds of NFL teams (21 of 32) opened the 2009 season with a fullback in their lineups. The top 14 rushing teams in the league and 16 of the top 17 clubs in rushing offense had fullbacks on their rosters. Of the 15 players in the league who rushed for 1,000 yards or more in 2009, all but Mendenhall played at least part of the season with a conventional fullback as a lead blocker.
In 2008, all of the top 10 rushing teams had a fullback.
Yet the reality that many still consider the position to be a low-priority spot is reflected in the fact that only two of the 14 running backs selected in the 2010 draft were fullbacks, John Conner of Kentucky (by the New York Jets in the fifth round) and Dennis Morris of Louisiana Tech (Washington Redskins in the sixth round). Rashawn Jackson of Virginia, rated by many teams as the top fullback prospect in the '09 draft, wasn't even selected.
Three teams have rookies whom they will attempt to convert to fullback. The Steelers are working to convert undrafted free agent Demetrius Taylor, a defensive tackle at Virginia Tech who played fullback in high school. The Rams are asking Michael Hoomanawanui, a tight end at Illinois, to make the switch. The Eagles are doing the same with former Missouri State TE Clay Harbor.
Certainly the fullback position has changed dramatically during the past 20 to 25 seasons. Years ago, players such as Larry Csonka, William Andrews and Christian Okoye were primary ball carriers. Ironically, in the Pittsburgh offense of the 1970s as constructed by Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, the fullback was actually the principal runner.
How has the fullback position evolved (or as some would suggest, devolved) in the past 10 to 15 seasons? Last season, no fullback totaled more than 70 carries, and Philadelphia's Leonard Weaver, who notched those 70 carries, was regarded as a hybrid runner, not a classic fullback, in the mold that the position has come to be known. The most receptions by a fullback was 21.
The fullback was a combination blocker and receiver 10 years ago, but the second part of that equation has diminished. Former standout fullback Larry Centers caught 827 passes in 14 seasons, the second-most catches by a non-wide receiver, and had eight years with 60 or more receptions as well as four with 80-plus receptions.
"But in [passing] situations now, most fullbacks aren't even on the field," Centers said.
Indeed, the transition from stud college runner to fullback, which many players have to make, is a tough one. It may be tougher still when a player has an opportunity to serve as the feature running back for an NFL team, then switch to fullback.
In 2008, Le'Ron McClain of Baltimore carried 232 times and was chosen for the Pro Bowl in just his second season. Last season, with Ray Rice taking over as the starting tailback and former 1,000-yard rusher Willis McGahee as the backup, McClain registered only 46 rushes.
He still made the Pro Bowl, this time as a blocker, but McClain has said this offseason that he wants more carries.
For the most part, fullbacks now play only 10 to 15 snaps per game, but that sparse workload hasn't diminished their importance for some franchises.
"You feel that every play you're in the game is an important play," said Madison Hedgecock of the New York Giants, regarded by many as being among the top three blocking fullbacks in the game. "You've got to maximize your snaps, and the best way to do that is to do the job the right way."
Said Lousaka Polite of Miami, another top-shelf lead blocker: "For as many plays as you're out on the field, you make a difference. You have to view it as a key role."
Some franchises have gone to the hybrid-type fullback, such as the Chargers' tandem of Jacob Hester and Mike Tolbert. Like Weaver, they are lighter and quicker players who aren't viewed as strictly lead blockers. Another factor: So few college teams are employing pro-style offenses, and the spread attacks have become so prevalent, that not many programs develop players who project to become fullback in the pros.
That said -- and even though some tailbacks, such as Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, really prefer to work from a one-back set with no fullback in front of them -- the position seems to have been somewhat resurrected.
The philosophy espoused by Mendenhall last week and Thomas Jones at the end of the '09 season has become more popular around the league.
"It pays to have the extra blocker in there, especially a guy who knows what he's doing," said Jones, who signed with Kansas City this spring after being released by the Jets, with whom he ran for many of his 1,402 yards last season behind fullback Tony Richardson. "It gives you one more blocker to take the linebacker or end out of the way and that's how a lot of big runs get broken."
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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