This years draft offered teams a total of five fullbacks to choose from. All five were subsequently drafted, but in the later rounds. If you knew nothing about the sport of football, you would still likely be able to make the fair assessment that the fullback is a dying position in the NFL.
Strictly off the top of my head, I can think of one fullback that I consider to be a star in the league and that is Oakland’s Marcel Reece. An argument can be made that John Connor is a superior athlete in his own right, but I feel like if not for his name being made famous by the timeless Terminator saga, he would be virtually unknown.
This didn’t used to be the case. The fullback was once a very much respected and appreciated position on every team. Back during the time when running the football was done more often, teams knew that they needed a big, bruising lead blocker to free up their half back for a good chunk of positive yards. Names like Lorenzo Neal were feared by linebackers. During his career, Neal was the physical, intimidating man-handler that helped backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Eddie George run their way into history. Without the great play of Neal, both Tomlinson and George would never have amounted the numbers they did.
As time went on, the fullback position evolved. Guys were learning how to catch the football, set screens, and would occasionally be called upon for an up-the-gut run. Mike Alstott set the bar incredibly high for the future generation of fullbacks. Unfortunately, it seems as though his stellar play will be the best we will ever see again from that position.
As hard as it is to accept that there is a role on teams that is virtually disappearing, it does make sense. Coaches simply are not running the ball as often as they once were. The only three teams that lean heavily on their running game with the use of a fullback are Oakland, Seattle, and San Francisco. Now, with the mobile QB on the rise, it’s much more common place for teams to run the spread, as if they were in the NCAA. Read options and screen passes are replacing power runs and plays out of the I formation. Halfbacks are getting smaller and faster. Chris Johnson, Darren Sporles, Reggie Bush and LeSean McCoy make up the preferred style of runner in todays faster NFL. We may never see another Jim Brown, Jerome Bettis, or Marshawn Lynch after this decade. So if the workhorse running back is gone, then their sidekick brut’s, the guys known as fullbacks, are sure to go extinct. This is Darwinism at it’s finest.
Perhaps one of the last remaining points aspiring fullbacks can hang their hat on is the recent success of the Seattle Seahawks. They proved that there is still a place for old school, hard nosed football in todays league. Marshawn Lynch had Michael Robinson to help clear his path, and they helped the ‘Hawks run to the franchise’s first Super Bowl. The NFL is often referred to as a “copy-cat” league, so maybe, just maybe, other franchises will view Seattle’s run game as a blue print for success. Then maybe, just maybe, the NFL fullback will make a strong return. However, as of right now that position is beginning to look a lot like the great white buffalo – Distant memories.