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The Return of the Fullback

by Terry Matthews  |  @Gridironalytics |   Published Nov 11, 2018

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The Return of the Fullback

by Terry Matthews  |  @Gridironalytics   |  Published November 11, 2018

Image Credit: Phil Roeder

When Sean Payton, Bill Belichick and Kyle Shanahan – three of the greatest football minds currently plying their trade in the NFL – have all come to the same general conclusion regarding a certain not-insignificant wrinkle in their offense, it doesn't follow that its going to become a league-wide trend.

But perhaps it should.


The offensive wrinkle in question is none other than the use of a fullback. Sean Payton – an offensive-minded coach and one of the biggest offensive influencers in terms of what other coaches think is permissible on offense – is running an installation on offense that’s akin to a smashmouth-style run game on top of New Orleans solid passing attack. Payton will use 6-1/233lb fullback Zack Lane almost exclusively at the point of attack, complementing the Saints excellent offensive line, and in the process adding a string to the bow of New Orleans’ ground game.

The New England fullback on the other hand is 6-3/255lb James Develin, a capable runner who, like Lane, is nevertheless almost exclusively used as a blocking ‘back out of the I formation in the Patriot’s power-run scheme (he’ll also catch a few balls, 27 for 193 yards since he signed with New England in 2012). An old school fullback who’s build is very much the typical hulking fullback prototype of yesteryear, as opposed to the slimmer H-back/fullback hybrid that’s more common in today’s NFL.

New England ran the ball 258 times between week's 1 to 9, with Develin featuring in a large chunk of these plays, getting 203 snaps, with a minority of usage when he was in to give some extra pass pro.  

Off the back of Develin’s blocking the Patriot’s red zone running attack has fared better than without him, as he barrels through lanes ahead of the tailback, and generally shows himself capable of moving bodies in the Patriot’s bludgeoning running attack.

Whilst the peculiar usage of Lane and Develin is just one facet of the utility a team can draw from a fullback, this hasn't stopped the position almost entirely falling out of favor and being progressively replaced by hybrid tight ends, and more and more teams running an exclusively zone blocking-scheme that doesn't require the inclusion of a fullback.

But as the Pats and Saints and even the 49ers have shown, and as other teams around the league amply illustrate: the fullback position still retains massive upside, and offers numerous means whereby it might be sewn into the fabric of an offense.

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Although the Patriots, as previously mentioned, use Develin almost exclusively as a blocking ‘back out of the I, we don’t have to look too far back to see when the fullback was a legitimate ball-carrier who would earn the kind of carries we see from today’s feature running-back. Indeed fullbacks in the mold of the legendary Steeler Franco Harris (6-2/230lb), Larry Czonka (6-3/237lb) of the ‘72 Dolphins, or John Riggins (6-2/230lb) of the ‘80 Redskins were the feature ‘backs of their teams, and the go-to guys whether their teams needed inches in a short-yardage situation or major break-out yards.

But today such ball-carriers are completely extinct.

There are some guys around today who play running-back that outweigh all three of these guys, yet are still considered mere “running-backs”. Le’Veon Bell for instance. However players like Bell or Gurley or even “power-backs” like LeGarrette Blount or Jay Ajayi are still an evolution of the old “halfback”, a term once used to describe them in order to distinguish them from fullbacks (this when there was a fullback on every roster).

Based on the “physical evolution” of what we accept as the running-back prototype in 2018, an interesting corollary is whether the fullback might also experience something of a renaissance – and much in the manner a Bell or Gurley has 20lbs on Barry Sanders or Terrell Davis – the new fullback prototype will be bigger by about 20+ lbs of muscle than a Larry Czonka or a Daryl Johnston (6-2/242lb). With the kind of size to be a road-grader in the run game, and offer elite-level pass pro even against big bull-rushing 3-techniques up the middle.

Certainly a return of more power schemes that feature fullbacks is long overdue, as we've experienced nearly two decades of zone-centric blocking schemes and the "passing revolution" that placed more value in tight ends than fullbacks.

Of course, as with almost all major trends, it's likely going to have to happen in college first, as, as things stand, the passage of fullbacks between college and the pros has slowed to an infinitesimal trickle.