‘The Rise of the Fullback’: Why teams are making the once-forgotten position relevant again

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‘The Rise of the Fullback’: Why teams are making the once-forgotten position relevant again

There were just two minutes left. The Las Vegas Raiders were trailing the Chicago Bears, 21-17, in the fourth quarter of a 2019 Week 5 matchup at London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

The Raiders, at the 2-yard line, needed a touchdown. Fullback Alec Ingold lined up in I-formation in front of running back Josh Jacobs and identified his assignment on first-and-goal. But there was a problem: Ingold didn’t see a clear pathway for his lead block.

So, he improvised. Since Ingold couldn’t effectively run through the trenches, he decided to jump over big uglies up front, using his athleticism to clear the blockers and stuffers in front of him. With that assist, Jacobs quickly followed suit and lept into paydirt for the go-ahead score.

The play was a perfect example of how a smash-mouth lead blocker can make a difference in an NFL offense. Despite the NFL’s fixation on becoming a full-fledged passing league, there’s still a place for a position that at one point seemed to be going the way of the dinosaurs.

Ingold — and the 27 other fullbacks currently on NFL rosters — know that the nitty-gritty job is still worthy of a place in the high-powered offenses of the present day. It just takes the right player to make the position valuable.

“You’ve got to love football to play fullback,” Ingold told Pro Football Network. “Not a lot of people are going to put their hand up to run inside-zone [plays] against a 245-pound absolute stud at linebacker.”

Ingold, who now plays for the Miami Dolphins, has seen the value of fullbacks trend up in recent years. During the last 10 Super Bowls, 13 of the 20 teams employed a fullback, including six of the 10 winners.

While fullbacks play a fraction of the offensive snaps for most teams, the position is an extra tool in the toolbox for offensive coordinators — particularly when they are looking to pick up a few tough feet in short-yardage situations or at the goal line.

Predictably, most offenses that prioritize the running game stash a fullback on their roster. Last season, six of the top eight teams in total rushing yards had a fullback in their offense. Likewise, six of the top 10 teams in total rushing attempts also carried the position.

“You’re kind of seeing the rise of the fullback,” Ingold said.

But identifying a worthwhile fullback can be a tough assignment for decision-makers. Since the player is only playing a small portion of the offensive snaps, he needs to be a dynamic asset on special teams. He also must be versatile out of the backfield, with the ability to run, catch, and block against modern defenses.

It’s a thankless job in a lot of ways, as teams rarely spend significant money or high draft picks on the position. But that outlook kind of fits the mindset of the position anyway.

“You’ve got to have a certain mindset — and a certain level of insanity — knowing you’re going to go in there, rough up that [linebacker], get up on the D-end on power,” Washington Commanders fullback Alex Armah said to PFN. “It’s something I embraced.”

PFN spoke with fullbacks of the past and present, as well as a handful of current NFL coaches, to gain a better understanding of the position’s importance in the modern NFL.

Making the fullback great again

Like kicker, punter, and long snapper, fullback has become a specialist position. There are very few spots designated to the position, and some offenses don’t have one in their playbook.

But for 22 teams, the position remains relevant, even if it’s become an afterthought in a way. Some offensive coordinators actually prefer it that way.

“It doesn’t hurt that a lot of offenses have gone away from it,” Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel said in May. “… Defenses aren’t as adept at fitting those types of plays, whether they’re runs or passes, and defending against it, which is a competitive advantage.”

Some coaches view the position as a palate-cleanser of sorts. With teams focused so heavily on three-receiver looks and two-tight end formations, running a play with two backs can shake things up and keep the defense off-schedule.

“I think that’s interesting because you can kind of declare some looks from the defense,” New York Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka said. “I think that definitely opens up some certain packages on offense.”

Former NFL fullback Patrick DiMarco sees the position as a worthwhile alternative to 12 personnel packages that often use a second tight end as an extra blocker anyway.

10 Personnel: 1 RB, 4 WRs, 0 TE
01 Personnel: 1 TE, 4 WRs, 0 RB
11 Personnel: 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs
12 Personnel: 1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs
13 Personnel: 1 RB, 3 TEs, 1 WR
21 Personnel: 2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs
22 Personnel: 2 RBs, 2 TEs, 1 WR
23 Personnel: 2 RBs, 3 TEs

“I think having a true fullback that’s a downhill thumper, who is also reliable out of the backfield — it brings another element to the game that you can do different stuff with,” DiMarco said. “You don’t have to line up in I-formation and run [isolation plays]. You can start in empty [backfield] and motion to the backfield and simplify the defense and manipulate [defensive] fronts and what you’re getting, because defenses don’t prepare for the fullback.”

That lack of preparation can also help a running back find new room to roam out of the backfield. If a linebacker or safety is compromised due to the presence of a fullback, the running back can follow the fullback’s lead block and gain additional yardage.

“When you’re a running back, and you have another line of defense in front of you, that gives some extra comfort that way,” Giants running backs coach DeAndre Smith told PFN.

The Giants under new head coach Brian Daboll have a rookie fullback — Jeremiah Hall — in the tight end room. With an offense that is so predicated on the pass, having tight ends coach Andy Bischoff mentor Hall makes sense, as there stands a large possibility that the rookie will be used on the routine passing plays.

“I think the question at that position, league-wide, is: Can you find a guy who can give you a difference?” Bischoff told PFN. “Kyle Juszczyk can catch a pass and block enough. Pat Ricard can beat the snot out of you. … We’re on the search for that.”

Daboll worked under Bills head coach Sean McDermott, a respected defensive mind. He thinks the fullback position can be a pre-snap chess piece to exploit the opposite side. While Daboll wants to play fast on offense, he also wants to find advantages over opponents.

“I think it’s just another tool in your offense to see how teams are going to play you, whether they want to stay in a sub-personnel package, a base-personnel package,” Daboll said. “Does it simplify them, does it complicate them? To have many different personnels offensively to put stress on the defense, if those people are good enough to put out there, I think it is important.”

The Kyle Shanahan factor

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan’s coaching tree now has branches in a bunch of NFL cities. As Shanahan’s influence has grown, so have opportunities for fullbacks.

Shanahan has turned fullback Kyle Juszczyk into a perennial Pro Bowler and a familiar name for hardcore football fans. With the ability to use Juszczyk all over the field, Shanahan has created a special role for the position that has been copied by his former pupils.

Last year, the 49ers lined up in a two-back formation for a league-high 34% of their offensive snaps, according to Sharp Football. Juszczyk, who has made five consecutive Pro Bowls, lined up on 56% of the total offensive snaps on the season, the second-most by any player at the position, behind the Baltimore Ravens’ Patrick Ricard (57%).

“Not everybody has Kyle Juszczyk,” Bischoff said. “Other guys aren’t going to run by you, so really game-plan-wise, it’s all about what your personnel does to the defense. If playing the guy does nothing to the defense, then you want to play the best guys.”

DiMarco played for Shanahan for two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. DiMarco said during his time with the Buffalo Bills, McDermott routinely told him that Shanahan’s use of the fullback limited his defensive call sheet.

“It really kind of dumbs teams down,” DiMarco said.

McDaniel spent most of his career coaching under Shanahan. As he enters his first season as a head coach in Miami, he’s making sure to prioritize the fullback position like his longtime mentor.

“I’ve been fortunate enough, since 2005, to be in the same structure of offense, and this will be my seventh team,” McDaniel said. “From the starting point of Day 1 installation, I’ve had a fullback involved.”

McDaniel believes the fullback position creates an advantage for the offense because it can disguise the numbers on both sides of the center. That look can keep the defense guessing, because a second back can head in any direction and impact the play in multiple ways, especially if he is a smart, dynamic athlete.

The defense needs to quickly decide if it should play in base or nickel personnel, and that decision can have disastrous effects on the play if the fullback does his job properly.

“You have to have an athletic player that is smart, can understand a lot of schemes and can read on the fly,” McDaniel said. “When that position player plays fast, it can be pretty disruptive to teams that are not used to going against it.”

When Ingold was cut by the Raiders following a regime change this offseason, he looked at the Dolphins as an ideal landing spot. With McDaniel bringing the Shanahan offense to Miami, Ingold, who has similar traits to Juszczyk, thought the Dolphins could open up his potential as a playmaker.

“One hundred percent,” Ingold said. “Through the last three years, you put on the game tape, you’ll see a physical guy, I’ll run inside zone, outside zone, power-gap scheme. I can catch the ball, run the ball, but to see the amount of knowledge and the different ways that [Juszczyk] lines up, the way that he impacts a football game, I think that’s exciting for anybody.”

The bookworm back

As with any niche position, players competing for the fullback job need to wear a lot of different hats. They also need to be experts with the playbook, as they can serve as emergency options for running back, tight end and even wideout.

“If there was an ‘F’ in the playbook, I was studying the ‘F’ in the playbook,” DiMarco said.

Plus, fullbacks have to be impactful on special teams to warrant their spot on the roster. The player is essentially competing for two jobs at one spot.

“When you have a guy that plays fullback, he’s not afraid to get dirty, and he’s usually athletic enough to shed blocks and make plays downfield on special teams,” Armah said.

Essentially, the fullback in the modern NFL world needs to be adaptable, and not just on offense. They have to think and play at a high level whenever they are out on the field.

Ultimately, though, while the position has evolved over the years, the foundational role remains the same. Fullbacks, while athletic and smart, are tone-setting bullies in the backfield. They are the tip of the spear in the running game, and that job still has its place within the game.

“In order to be able to pass the ball, you’ve got to run the ball,” Armah said. “Having some statement runs, some hard-nosed football runs downhill with the fullback on the lead block, setting the tone for the game, that’s huge.”