Fullbacks: The Forgotten X-Factor
“The fullback is dead!” yell fans who have no idea what they’re talking about. Look at the San Francisco 49ers offense, for example. Where do you see #44 lined up? As a running back? Tight end? Slot receiver? Out wide? Quarterback? It might sound silly, but San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk took at least one snap at all of those alignments during the 2020 NFL season.
Despite being thought of as a “dying breed” in football, the fullbacks that are currently in the NFL might be more talented than we’ve seen in a long time, maybe even ever. It’s not just the more recognizable names in the league either, like Kyle Juszczyk or Derek Watt. Whether we’re talking about an up-and-comer like Alec Ingold, established veterans like Mike Burton and Patrick Ricard, or special teams aces like Reggie Gilliam, the talent available at fullback is remarkable.
“Fullbacks have suffered the single greatest misrepresentation in the history of sports. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of hyperbole, but the fullback didn’t die or disappear and college football certainly didn’t kill it,” said Emily Van Buskirk, host of the Sideline Sass Podcast and a fullback advocate. Perhaps no position has changed more alignment-wise in the NFL than the fullback.
“The greatest trick the modern football offense ever pulled was convincing fans that the fullback no longer exists. Three steps, that’s all it took – the spread shifted the QB back, the RB to the side and the fullback forward and at an angle. And suddenly it’s an H back. Some people use fullback and h-back as interchangeable words but they are not. These days you will see fullbacks disguised as tight ends. But if you see a 200 pound, 6 foot tight end on the roster, that’s a fullback buddy.”
The lack of production is the main reason that the position is lacking the attention it rightfully deserves, but in an offensive era where positionless players are becoming more prevalent, fullbacks have evolved. Many are now being used primarily as fullbacks but also line up as h-backs, tight ends, some even find themselves being the passing-down specialist for their team, becoming true swiss army knives.
So when it comes down to the nitty gritty, just how “irrelevant” are they? Where did this idea even come from? I sat down with Ovie Mughelli, a two-time All-Pro and former Pro Bowler and asked him just that. “The lack of recognition probably is more from the fan side than it would be from the pure football side, because the coaches who draw up the plays and the offensive linemen who work with the fullbacks, they’re pretty aware of the work the fullbacks do.”
“You’re watching the chaotic, beautiful, violent symphony that is a football game, and with the moving chess pieces, it’s tough to focus on because we do the dirty work… People don’t get the chance to really isolate the fullback contributions.” Mughelli said.
When you take a look at the top fullbacks in the NFL, they’re vital to their teams success, even if that doesn’t show up in the box score or for your fantasy team. There are few fullbacks that are as vital to the success of their teams offense as Kyle Juszczyk or Patrick Ricard, but in very different ways.
In 2019, when the Baltimore Ravens had a record-setting rushing attack, oftentimes you would see Patrick Ricard leading the way. According to Pro Football Focus, on 77.1% of gap-blocking plays the Ravens ran in 2020, Patrick Ricard was on the field. In 2019, that number was 78.8%. Whether or not it shows up in the box score or in fantasy football, Patrick Ricard is absolutely at least partially responsible for the success of the Baltimore Ravens offense. Moreover, no fullback in the NFL played more snaps than Ricard did in 2020, as he played 47% of the team’s 1,024 offensive snaps.
Kyle Juszczyk on the other hand, a former Baltimore Raven, is a much bigger contributor in zone-blocking plays than gap-blocking. “Juice” was involved in 62.1% of the 49ers’ zone-blocking plays in 2020. As a pass-catcher, Juszczyk found himself being used to challenge defenses vertically, seeing 24.1% of his targets in 2020 when he was 10-19 yards downfield.
The third fullback that played 400+ offensive snaps for his team was C.J. Ham of the Minnesota Vikings. Ham was a relative unknown before the 2019 season, when he broke out as a key cog in the machine that is this Vikings rushing attack. While he’s not a superstar fullback (yet), his presence on the field, specifically on zone-blocking plays, allows this offense to open up in ways few fullbacks would allow them too.
“Playing fullback in today’s game kind of feels like a lost art,” said Buffalo Bills fullback Reggie Gilliam. “There aren’t many fullbacks, other than maybe Pat Ricard, that are used as a true ‘blow up the hole, make a lane for our backs’ kinda guy anymore. In today’s pass heavy game, fullbacks are being forced to evolve into a hybrid/H-back, do-it-all kind of role. I’m actually a fan of what the position is becoming,”
“A solid fullback can really change the dynamic of an offense, because of course he’ll be able to block well and aid in the run game, but if he can be a threat outside the box and maybe dump off a couple passes to him for some YAC, I think it’s a problem for defenses. Look at what Juice over in San Fran has done over the last few years. Most of the time fullbacks are overlooked and unaccounted for in a defense’s eyes and with how skilled teams are now, you’ll take any advantage you can get over the opponent.”
If you’re someone who truly appreciates the game of football, odds are that you also appreciate fullbacks.
Van Buskirk, for example, told Whole Nine Sports “in my opinion, Daryl Johnston is the ultimate fullback. His attitude and demeanor both on and off the field, plus the tenacious but tactful way he played was a true testament to the position. There are guys that play like that now too–Keith Smith from the Falcons, C.J. Ham with the Vikings. And some great college guys that have now made it to the pros–Tory Carter from LSU, Mikey Daniel from South Dakota State and Mason Stokke from Wisconsin. The Badgers have a great fullback bloodline, from Derek Watt to Alec Indgold to Stokke and the current fullback John Chenal. My list could go on forever honestly.”
For me, personally, the guy that made me fall in love with the fullback was Owen Marecic while he was at Stanford. Marecic was drafted in the 4th round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. For those who don’t know, Marecic played fullback and inside linebacker for Stanford during his career.
He was a punishing hitter that always went full-throttle every play and he donated his hair to cancer patients, in case you needed to be sold on him more. Ultimately, he wouldn’t have a long career as he would retire in his third season to attend medical school.
There was another fullback in the 2011 Draft that I would become a massive fan of too: Henry Hynoski, AKA The Hynoceros. Hynoski would also only have a three year career before leaving the NFL, but not before winning a Super Bowl ring in his rookie season with the Giants.
Both of those players were true throwbacks. While I was speaking with Ovie Mughelli, he reminisced about playing under two coaches specifically: Baltimore Ravens Head Coach Brian Billick and Atlanta Falcons Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey, citing their commitment to the run game and usage of the fullback in the power run game. More notable, however, was when Mughelli recalled playing with Steve McNair. “With Steve McNair my last year in Baltimore, he appreciated the run game. He liked the fact that they didn’t know if we would run or if we would throw.”
Now it’s a much lighter and faster NFL game, where versatility is king. Heck, we’ve seen fullbacks like Patrick Ricard and Nikita Whitlock play defensive tackle in addition to their responsibility as the starting fullback. More commonly, you’ll see fullbacks that double as special teams contributors; few, however, contribute in the way that Reggie Gilliam does. We often see fullbacks play on punt and kickoff, but it’s rare to see a fullback impact special teams like Gilliam, who registered six blocked kicks during his time at Toledo.
“Playing special teams has always been a part of my repertoire; coming out of college, that’s what I was banking on to help me make a roster considering I didn’t have many offensive stats. And still, to this day, special teams is a big part of the reason why I made a roster in 2020. I never felt like playing special teams was a chore. For one, I just love being out on the field and two, special teams is a lot of fun.” Gilliam said, who played 233 special teams snaps in 2020 and had a grade of 75.0 with Pro Football Focus.
While not properly appreciated, we’ve seen special teams change the entire course of a game for teams. “People just don’t take it seriously because obviously there’s not as many ST snaps as there are offensive or defensive,” continued Gilliam. “But in reality, people should take special teams as serious, if not more serious than offense/defense, because not only are there less reps of ST, but any one of those single ST reps can be a huge momentum swing or game changer during the course of the game. And knowing that there can be a singular play that many players consider a ‘play off’, that I can take advantage of and help my team win, is huge. Of course I’m going to take a lot of pride in my special teams work.”
Everyone in this article has one very big thing in common: they appreciate the fullback. While it may not be a widely appreciated, celebrated, or even acknowledged position, the fullback can open up new levels to an offense that very few others can.