With the NFL draft rapidly approaching, Commanders’ fans’ attention is focusing on positions of immediate need, such as offensive line, linebacker, occasionally even quarterback, and premium impact positions like cornerback and edge defenders. One position that is hardly ever discussed is the lowly fullback. The 2023 draft features one or two players at the position who are considered draftable.
Younger football fans might be surprised to learn that this wasn’t always the case. At one point in the league’s development, the fullback was the premium position on an NFL offense, sharing equal billing with the quarterback, sometimes even eclipsing him. With the rise of the passing game in the Super Bowl era, the once mighty fullback has taken a back seat, and at one point nearly disappeared. But, as we will see, the position is making a bit of a comeback and is now represented on close to 50% of NFL rosters.
For old school Redskins fans, who grew up in an era when the fullback was an integral part of an NFL backfield, the hiring of Eric Bieniemy as the Commanders’ offensive coordinator has shined a new light on this neglected position for one simple reason. His offense featured a fullback throughout his time in Kansas City. Whether he brings the fullback back to Washington, and what that might look like remains to be seen. While we wait to find out, I thought it might be of interest to review the history and development of one of the most poorly understood positions in football.
To give you a sense of the magnitude of the fullback’s fall from grace, consider this. Since the NFL draft began in 1936, the Washington Redskins picked 15 quarterbacks in the first round, making it the most frequently targeted position in franchise history. That should come as no surprise, given the importance of quarterbacks to the modern game.
The second-most targeted position is, in fact, the fullback. Since 1936, Washington has picked 10 fullbacks in the first round. The next most frequent first-round picks have been defensive backs and wide receivers, at 7 apiece. It could be argued that the Redskins drafted 9 defensive backs, if you count QB Sammy Baugh’s position on defense and halfback/defensive back Cal Rossi, whom they drafted twice, once before he was eligible. Nevertheless, fullbacks still hold their position in second place.
The last fullback taken in the first round by Washington was Ray McDonald, selected 13th overall in in the 1967 draft. McDonald’s NFL career ended prematurely when he was arrested the following year for having sex with another man, which was illegal at the time.
You see, the NFL, like the world around it, wasn’t always as it is today.
The Dawn of the Fullback
In the 1920’s, before the Boston Braves entered the league and changed their name to Redskins, halfbacks, also known as tailbacks, generally led teams in scoring. The professional game in those days was mainly a running game and used the same rules as college football.
The first great fullback was Ernie Nevers, who played for the Duluth Eskimos and Chicago Cardinals from 1926 to 1931. He was named first-team All-Pro in each season. Nevers was a hulking 6’ 0’”, 204 lb back. In keeping with American football’s rugby origins, it was not unusual for backs in those days to also place kick. In his five-year career, Nevers scored 38 rushing touchdowns and also kicked 7 field goals and 52 extra points. That level of scoring production dwarfed all other running backs of his era, not just fullbacks, but also right half backs, left halfbacks, blocking backs and even wingbacks.
Pro football’s eventual break from the college rules was precipitated by a controversial play which featured one of the all-time great fullbacks. In 1932, the NFL held its first playoff game to determine a champion between the Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans, who had finished the season in a tie. In the fourth quarter of the scoreless contest, Chicago fullback Bronko Nagurski took the handoff, then stopped at the line of scrimmage and threw a pass to halfback Red Grange for a touchdown. League officials allowed the pass, despite the rule that forward passes had to be made from 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, setting the pro game on its own course forever after.
This critical milestone, inspired by Nagurski’s pass from scrimmage, was a harbinger of greater changes that fullbacks would bring to the game in the Depression Era. While NFL teams began to pass more frequently in the thirties, it was fullbacks who rose to prominence as the stars of the game, led by Hall of Famers and 4-time All Pros Nagurski and Clarke Hinkle of Green Bay. Fullbacks of that era weren’t much bigger than other backs and were mainly responsible for running the ball. Hinkle and, to a lesser extent, Nagurski caught the occasional pass, but receiving was more the province of halfbacks and ends.
The introduction of the T-formation in the 1940’s led to a crucial addition to the fullback’s arsenal, as it allowed the fullback to become a natural lead blocker for the halfback. Armed with this new capability, while still shouldering the bulk of the rushing load, fullbacks were poised to rise to even greater heights.
The 1950’s and 1960’s – Golden Era of the Fullback
With the advent of television, professional football cemented its status as America’s favorite sport. With the rise of the passing game, quarterbacks, such as Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr, began to share the limelight with fullbacks, while halfbacks languished as second-rate offensive weapons.
The 1950’s saw fullbacks assert their dominance as the premium offensive weapons of the era. From 1950 to 1965 a fullback led the NFL in rushing every season. Star fullbacks who rose to prominence in this decade included Jim Taylor, Joe Perry, Rick Casares and Alan Ameche. One fullback emerged from the rest to become one of the first two superstars of televised football, alongside quarterback Bart Starr.
Cleveland Browns fullback, Jim Brown was not just the greatest fullback of all time. He was the most dominant running back of any type, compared to his peers, that the game has ever seen. He led the NFL in rushing in 8 of his 9 professional seasons. He didn’t just lead the league, either. He left everyone else in the dust. In 3 of 9 seasons (1958, 1963, 1965), Brown’s rushing total was more than 75% greater than the next rusher on the list. In 6 of 9 seasons, he led the next placed rusher by 20% or more. He also led the league in rushing touchdowns five times, and never ranked lower than fourth.
Brown’s rushing totals are astounding even by today’s standards. That is all the more remarkable considering that the season was only 14 games long when he played. He rushed for over 1,200 yards in 7 of his 9 professional seasons and scored 10 or more rushing TDs five times. He rushed for over 1,400 yards five times.
Brown was not the best receiving back of his era, but he was dangerous on screen passes or running routes from the backfield. He peaked as a receiver in 1962, the one year he didn’t lead the league rushing, catching 47 passes for 517 yards and 5 touchdowns. From 1958 to 1965, he had one season with fewer than 1,500 yards from scrimmage and only one season with fewer than 10 touchdowns. Not surprisingly, he led all NFL players in yards from scrimmage for 6 seasons and never ranked lower than 4th.
Brown also won some awards. In his rookie season, he was voted AP and UPI Rookie of the Year, AP MVP, first team All Pro, and he also made the Pro Bowl. Not a bad start. Over the next 8 seasons, he was voted AP MVP twice, UPI MVP 3 times, NEA MVP 3 times, Sporting News Player of the Year 3 times, first-team All-Pro 7 times, and had 8 Pro Bowl appearances. He also won the 1963 Bert Bell Award, was voted to the All-1960s Team, and was inducted to the Hall of Fame.
He was simply faster, stronger, smarter and meaner than the defenders he played against, as you can see right here (warning Redskins’ fans: contains disturbing content). He also had a way with words, concisely capturing the essence of the fullback position:
Make sure when anyone tackles you, he remembers how much it hurts.
When Brown retired to become a movie star in 1965, he effectively brought the fullback’s glory era to an end. The following season, Gayle Sayers became the first halfback to lead the league in rushing since 1949. The only fullback to ever lead the league in rushing after Brown was the Nigerian Nightmare, Christian Okoye, in 1989. Some of the greatest fullbacks were still to come. But the era when fullbacks dominated the NFL landscape had run its course.
The Super Bowl Era
Like many of the great milestones of NFL history, the Super Bowl era was ushered in with the help of a fullback. Green Bay fullback Jim Taylor scored the first rushing touchdown in Super Bowl I on a 14-yard run. Despite this auspicious start, the fullback was ultimately headed toward a supporting role.
Following Jim Brown’s retirement, the Chicago Bears began to crystalize what was to become the modern understanding of the fullback’s role. Gayle Sayers emerged as the next superstar running back, owing some of his success to lead blocking by fullback Brian Piccolo. Sayers and Piccolo became the most famous running back/fullback duo in NFL history, and their relationship was immortalized by the made for TV movie Brian’s Song. In the brief 4 years before he was struck down by testicular cancer at 26, Piccolo scored only 5 touchdowns. Sayers, following his lead blocks, scored 28 TDs in the same period. Interestingly, Piccolo was the same height as Sayers and only 7 pounds heavier.
As more and more teams adopted Chicago’s two-back blueprint, the two positions began to diverge completely and specialize for the first time. The fullback became a much larger back who could lead the running back through holes and pick up blitzers as a blocker. Running backs such as O.J. Simpson, Walter Payton and Earl Campbell emerged as the next stars of the game as they increasingly dominated rushing and receiving from the backfield.
The 1970’s saw the last two great featured fullbacks, Larry Csonka and Franco Harris. Old school Redskins’ fans remember Csonka as the MVP of Super Bowl VII, which capped the only undefeated season since the merger. Harris was the Steelers’ lead rusher throughout their glory run from 1972 through 1979, during which they won 4 Super Bowls. He was one of the top 5 leading rushers in the NFL from 1975 through 1978, peaking at #2 behind Walter Payton in 1978. He was the MVP of Super Bowl IX, and was immortalized as the star of the most famous play in NFL history, The Immaculate Reception.
In 1978, the NFL introduced the illegal contact rule, freeing receivers from interference by defensive backs, and cementing the dominance of the passing game forever after. The ascendence of the passing game in the 1980s consigned running backs to second-class status and the fullback was relegated to a supporting role on most teams.
During the 1980’s, the fullback-running back duo became established as the standard NFL backfield. Notable fullbacks from the period included Chicago’s Matt Suhey, who led the way for Walter Payton and San Francisco’s Tom Rathman. John Riggins began his career in Washington as a fullback, but transitioned to a running back role at the start of the Joe Gibbs era.
Fullbacks of this era were primarily blockers and short yardage specialists. Rathman was an exception and paved the way for the final step in the evolution of the modern fullback. In addition to the usual duties, San Francisco utilized Rathman as a receiver out of the backfield. In 1989, Rathman led all running backs with 73 receptions for 616 yards.
Following San Francisco’s lead, in the 1990’s fullbacks retained their roles as blockers and short-yardage specialists, but they also began to be used more as receivers. Notable fullbacks from this era included the Cowboys’ Daryl Johnson, Green Bay’s William Henderson, and Kansas City’s Tony Richardson.
While not as common as in the glory years, featured fullbacks have emerged from time to time in the salary cap era. One example was Larry Centers, who rose to prominence with the Arizona Cardinals in the 1990’s and later spent two years with the Redskins. In his All-Pro 1996 season, Centers caught 99 passes for 766 yards and 7 touchdowns, and also rushed for 425 yards on 116 attempts with 2 touchdowns. Few fullbacks since Franco Harris have received that many offensive touches.
The last true featured fullback, Mike Alstott, was one of the stars of the Super Bowl champion 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Over 11 years, Alstott averaged 670 yards from scrimmage, with a 2.2:1 ratio of rushing to passing yards. The other back who deserves a mention is Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis. While Bettis was listed as a running back, at 5’ 11” and 252 pounds, he was a fullback in spirit, if not in name.
After Alstott hung up his cleats in 2006, there was a sharp decline in the number of teams using fullbacks and in their utilization by the few teams that kept the faith. In Alstott’s final season, 42 fullbacks recorded yards from scrimmage, playing for 30 teams. Only the Colts and Cardinals didn’t use one. Over the next 7 years, the number of teams designated as a fullback steadily dropped. In 2013, their numbers hit rock bottom, with only 2 players designated as fullbacks recording yards from scrimmage.
That number overstates the situation to some extent, because several teams, including the Chiefs, Redskins and Ravens, had players designated as running backs performing a fullback role. Nevertheless, it was undeniable that numbers across the league had declined to the point that the fullback was poised on the brink of extinction.
In parallel, the utilization of fullbacks by the few teams that kept them dropped. In 2007, the league’s leading fullback, Kenny Watson of the Bengals, recorded 1,137 yards from scrimmage. The peak production from fullbacks declined every year thereafter, until 2013, when the most productive fullback, Kansas City’s Anthony Sherman, masquerading as a running back, recorded a modest 158 yards from scrimmage.
Fullback utilization remained at an all time low for the next three years. In 2016, only 4 players designated as fullbacks recorded yards from scrimmage. The leading fullback that year, Green Bay’s John Kuhn recorded a modest 107 total yards.
The following season, there was a sudden resurgence of fullbacks, with 12 players around the league receiving touches at the position. The fullbacks had made it through the evolutionary bottleneck, but they were different than before.
The re-emergence of the fullback in 2017 coincided with a low profile free agent signing by the San Francisco 49ers. Kyle Juszczyk was drafted out of Harvard by the Baltimore Ravens in the 4th round of the 2013 draft. He was listed on the Ravens’ roster as a running back, but his role with the team was primarily as a blocker and receiver out of the backfield. Despite being called a running back, he saw very limited action as a rusher in short-yardage situations. During the final three years of his rookie contract with the Ravens, Juszczyk averaged 256 yards per season receiving compared to just 8.3 yards per season rushing.
When he signed with the 49ers, Juszczyk came out as a fullback. But he was different from his predecessors. Juszczyk has led NFL fullbacks in yards from scrimmage in 5 of the 6 seasons since joining the 49ers and has defined the new prototype for the position.
At 6-1 and 235 pounds, Juszczyk is highly athletic for his size, with a RAS score of 9.79, including elite explosiveness, good speed (4.71 sec 40) and great agility scores. The 49ers use Juszczyk on over 50% of offensive snaps. His role is the perfect addition to the 49ers play-action offense. When the fullback is on the field, defenses anticipate the run, as he is very effective at clearing the way for the running back. However, his versatility as a pass catcher creates mismatch opportunities when defenders are drawn into the box and defensive backs are forced into one-on-one matchups.
With the 49ers, Juszczyk has continued to be used primarily as a blocker and a receiver, averaging 263 receiving yards per season to only 30 yards rushing. Despite the low totals, he is an effective rusher in short-yardage situations, converting 1st downs or scoring on 62% of rushing attempts.
Juszczyk is clearly the best of the NFL’s active fullbacks, but his utilization by the 49ers is indicative of the general trend at the position in today’s game. In 2022, fullbacks with 15 different NFL teams recorded yards from scrimmage. Average height for the position is 6’ 1”, and average weight is 248 lbs. The one outlier is Baltimore’s Patrick Ricard, a converted defensive tackle who is 6’ 3” and 311 lbs.
Juszczyk led fullbacks in 2022 with 226 total yards and 2 TDs, with 200 receiving yards representing 88% of his total yardage from scrimmage. The next most productive fullbacks were Miami’s Alec Ingold (113 total yards, 93% receiving), Minnesota’s C.J. Ham (93 total yards, 92% receiving), and Baltimore’s Patrick Ricard (90 total yards, 82% receiving).
No other active fullbacks recorded more than 69 yards from scrimmage in 2022. However, in most cases, their utilization on offense follows the same pattern as the leaders at the position. Of the 8 active fullbacks who had 10 or more opportunities for touches (passing targets + rushing attempts), all but one had more passing targets than rushing attempts. The only exception was Pittsburgh’s Derek Watt, who had 5 targets and 9 rushing attempts. The remaining 7 fullbacks were mainly used as blockers, with very limited touches.
In summary, following their near extinction around 2013, fullbacks have bounced back and are now deployed by nearly half of the league. Like their predecessors, the modern fullback is still primarily a blocker, as has been the case throughout the Super Bowl era. Unlike fullbacks of the past, however, new age fullbacks have become complementary weapons in the passing game, while their role as rushers has been become limited to short-yardage situations.
Will the Fullback Return to Washington?
As Commanders fans eagerly await a new start on offense in 2023, there is a great deal of uncertainty about what changes incoming offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy will bring to the team. Bieniemy spent the last five years working for Andy Reid, one of the NFL’s greatest offensive minds, and came to Washington for the opportunity to have greater autonomy as a coordinator. He is also stepping into a team with a very different offensive roster. Consequently, we don’t really know what elements of his offense in Kansas City Bieniemy will bring to Washington and what he might do differently.
Kansas City is one of the teams that kept the faith in the fullback throughout the dark period of the early 2010’s, even if they called their fullback a running back for a time. Throughout his 5 years with the Chiefs, Bieniemy’s offense has always featured a fullback. Anthony Sherman played fullback for the Chiefs from 2013 through 2020. Following Sherman’s retirement, the Chiefs signed Michael Burton to take his place in 2021 and 2022.
The question is whether that was Bieniemy’s idea or Reid’s, since Reid has always carried a fullback as long as he has been a head coach. While we wait to learn Bieniemy views, we might derive some clues from how fullbacks were utilized by the Chiefs during his time as OC.
The good news for fullback enthusiasts is that the fullback was a constant presence in the Chiefs’ offense from 2018 through 2022. However, they were only used on an average of 8% of offensive snaps, while playing close to 75% of special teams snaps. The Chiefs predominantly used their fullbacks as blockers on offense, including lead blocking on running plays and as an extra blocker in the backfield in pass protection.
In Bieniemy’s 5 years as offensive coordinator, fullbacks got opportunities to touch the ball on 9.7% of offensive snaps that they played. In contrast to the current norm, those opportunities were essentially evenly split between passing targets (20 targets/423 offensive snaps) and rushing attempts (21 attempts/423 offensive snaps).
The Chiefs’ fullbacks were mainly used as a rushers in short yardage situations. While they only averaged 2.48 yards per carry, they converted first downs or scored on 81% of rushing attempts.
In limited opportunities, Bieniemy’s fullbacks were also very effective receivers, catching 80% of targets, for an average of 10.3 yards per reception, and converting first downs or scoring on 75% of receptions and 60% of targets.
It is impossible to say at this point whether Bieniemy will bring the fullback back to Washington, and if so, what might that look like. Because of their utility in play action, which he has tended to feature, there is at least a good chance that fans of the fullback will get their wish. We could even get a clue as soon as the fifth or sixth round of the draft, depending on what players are available at the Commanders’ picks, if Bieniemy is leaning in that direction.
Acknowledgement: Edited by James Dorsett
How do you see the future of the fullback position?
This poll is closed
About what it is now
They will catch on as blockers and complementary weapons in the passing game
More teams will use them in the running game
They will become the next mismatch weapon
You have got to be kidding