By John Turney
The recent NFL fullback is a niche position, it's a position that hadn't existed since likely the 1930s in the old single wing until a facsimile of it appeared in the late-1970s with the popularization of single back offenses.
We think the first to use this position was the Oilers when Earl Campbell became their superstar back. The Oilers liked the "I" formation and would line up Tim Wilson in front of him to lead block for Campbell.
Oddly, the name "fullback" is a misnomer. We spoke to Chuck Noll about that in the mid-1990s. We asked about Moose Johnston and the "guard in the backfield" position we were seeing all over the NFL. Noll said, "What you are seeing is the fullback offense. Johnston is actually the halfback and Emmitt Smith is the fullback." Coaching terminology tweaked those to call the fullback a tailback and the halfback a fullback.
Johnston's success led to the new fullback spot having a place on the Pro Bowl roster and a few seasons later the All-Pro team purveyors added the position as well.
So, to be clear, we are not talking about the great running fullbacks like Jim Brown or Jim Taylor. Nor are we talking about the all-around fullbacks like John L. Williams, Roland Harper, or Jim Braxton—players who blocked well, but also ran. We will deal with those in a separate post.
The typical season for the kind of fullbacks we are mentioning here would be maybe 45 carries in a season and maybe that many receptions, give or take.
But the key thing is if they blocked for dominant rushers with more emphasis on three blocks: lead (ILBs), kick-out & hook (edge players) on runs, plus pass-protection, of course.
For a fullback it is as important on run blocks, especially on ILBs, to have same "avoid-adjust" eyes/moves as if ball-carrying. Running backs can move a defender with his eye and the fullback has to do the same or every block would be a spatter. Sometimes that is needed but no one could do it play after play without some finesse.
In short, due to the many responsibilities some scouts think modern fullback is the NFL's toughest position outside of quarterback, physically and mentally.
Back in the day, we say Paul Maguire talking about the wisdom of a fullback to a caller on a Bills coaches show. The caller asked why the Bills didn't use Kenneth Davis along with Thurman Thomas since Davis was looking good as a ball carrier. Maguire said "There is only one ball. And I understand you want deception, but if one guy carriers you have to have a blocker and neither Davis nor Thomas can do that."
Here is our list. We are confident in the top five. After that it's too hard to separate them, so we relied on how long they played effectively and all the other things we've used in previous posts. So, don't be dismayed if you think, for example, #20t. is better than #17. You very well could be right—these players are so similar their isn't tons different between them, except for the top of the list, those we think, stand out.
Here is the list:
1. Daryl Johnston
Always stellar, always graded high by Mike Giddings
, Emmitt would tell you he's the best ever. He blocked for the NFL's all-time rusher and has three Super Bowl rings. What else is there?
He was All-Pro in 1993 by USA Today
and Sports Illustrated.
In 1994 and 1995 USA Today
again named him All-Pro.
2. Lorenzo Neal
A physical freak, he seemingly played for half the teams in the NFL but it was only seven. Amazing size and power—5-11 and 255 pounds (listed) but had to be 10-15 pounds heavier. He was a two-time All-Pro and a four-time Pro Bowler and was All-2000s, the first decade there was a blocking back on the team. In the 1990s the choice would have been Johnston for sure.
Neal blocked for Eddie George and Corey Dillon but his best stint was with the Chargers where he blocked for LaDainian Tomlinson from 2003 to 2007 and during that time Tomlinson averaged 1,546 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns per season.
3. Tom Rathman
Rathman was the guy Moose Johnston looked to for film study and how he patterned his game. In 1992 Rathman was the first of these new-style fullbacks to gain postseason honors when USA Today
named him All-Pro as a fullback.
4. Sam Gash
Like Neal, not quite as big, maybe around 245 pounds. Went to two Pro Bowls and got a Super Bowl ring in 2000 with the Ravens.
5. Kyle Juszczyk
One of the last of a breed, Jusczyk is a factor in the passing game and is a top-notch blocker. He's only going into his seventh season, so he's still young but we've picked players early in their careers (Aaron Donald, Justin Tucker, and others) on this list. We put a premium on peak performance. And watching a guy pass protect, lead block, and run a wheel route 20-25 yards downfield is impressive. He's the best in the game and has been for the last three seasons and was excellent before that.
6. John Kuhn
Was All-Pro and went to three Pro Bowls. Was effective as a goalline runner. He played a dozen seasons and in 166 games.
7. Mack Strong
Strong played 14 seasons and was a Pro Bowler twice and an All-Pro once.
8. William Henderson
Henderson was All-Pro once. He was one of the better receivers for the "block first" types on this list. he played twelve seasons and 188 games.
9. Vonta Leach
A three-time All-Pro, he played 11 years. One of the bigger guys (260-265 or so).
10. Le'Ron McClain
Once All-Pro, two Pro Bowls. He could block, and a 900-yard rushing season and had great size (over 260). But he had a shorter career and it dropped him on our list. He played just seven years but graded high as a runner and lead blocker.
11. Mike Tolbert
Two All-Pros and three Pro Bowls he was pretty complete. A very good blocker, an effective runner and decent receiver. He played dual roles, fullback and a back who could come in on run downs as a halfback and carry the ball. He played 10 seasons and 143 games.
12. Tony Richardson
Richardson played an amazing 16 seasons. He had a few seasons where he carried the ball a lot for a fullback before settling into the 'guard in backfield' role. He was second-team All-Pro twice, went to three Pro Bowls and was All-2000s (Second-team). He was smaller, more nimble and not quite the blocker that others were, but was more complete.
13. Larry Centers
Centers was All-Pro once and a three-time Pro Bowler. He was a dual role fullback. On run downs, he was a lead blocker but was such a good receiver he played on passing downs as a third-down back.
He was relatively small and relied on technique to take out linebackers, he's not a crusher like many others on this list.
14. Kimble Anders
A three-time Pro Bowler he's a facsimile of Centers. He could run better than most, but he was smaller, quicker and no the explosive blocker but again, more complete.
15. Cory Schlesinger
He played twelve seasons and 183 games. He was Pro Bowl quality in 2001 and 2002, in fact in 2001 Dr. Z (Sports Illustrated
) and Gordon Forbes (USA Today
) named him their All-Pro fullback. Plus, anyone nicknamed "Anvil Head" belongs high on our list.
16. Mike Karney
Seven seasons 101 games and was Second-team All-Pro in 2006.
17. Mike Guman
GUman was a typical fullback until the Rams drafted Eri Dickerson, then he became their "U-Back" a fullback/tight end hybrid that lined up in the backfield, motioned, lined up on the wing. Was a big help to Dickerson's early years.
18. Zack Crockett
At time could run as a base back, but was excellent as a goalline/short yardage runner.
19. Anthony Sherman
A throwback who is a pure blocker. Not a good receiver, not a good runner but will give splatter linebackers.
20t. Terrelle Smith
Smith played ten seasons and played in 146 games. Played in the 2008 Super Bowl with the Cardinals. More of a pure blocker, was not part of the passing game.
20t. Heath Evans
Evans also played to years and played in 143 games. Played in Super Bowl after 2007 season.
20t. Howard Griffith
Blocked for two different 1,000-yard rushers then
became Terrell Davis' fullback during his glory years. Played eight seasons, 121 games. Only about 230 pounds. Was actually a very good college runner.
20t. Tim Lester
Eight seasons, 93 games for Lester. He was the lead blocker for Jerome Bettis in his two best seasons (1993 with LA and 1996 with Pittsburgh).
20t. Tim Wilson
We think the first "modern" fullback leading for Earl Campbell.
20t. Buford McGee
More of a ball peen hammer that sledgehammer, he was accurate with his blocks and was a good part of the passing game.
20t. Otis Wonsley
On one lead block he hit Matt Millen in the throat and nearly left him mute (or many hoped)!. Millen yelled, "You can't hurt me!" But Millen said he couldn't swallow for three days after.
20t. Dan Kreider
Kreider played a decade and in 138 games before his warhorse body broke down. Earned ring lead blocking for Jerome "The Bus" Bettis.
20t. Bob Christian
Christian played a decade and played in 135 games. Best work was blocking for Jamal Anderson in Atlanta.
20t. Kevin Turner
20t. Greg Jones
20t. Tony Carter
One hundred thirty-five games and eight seasons for Carter, he blocked for a few 1,000-yard rushers.
20t. Daimon Shelton
Nine seasons, 133 games. Shelton was a bigger lead blocker, about 265 pounds.
20t. Marc Edwards
20t. Maurice Carthon
20t. Jerome Felton
20t. Jon Ritchie
20t. William Floyd
The best fullback in the NFL 'Bar None' according to himself. He was talented did it all, could run block, and catch. Dogged by injuries.
In the 2008 season, when he was playing for the Giants, Hedgecock was voted as a first alternate to the Pro Bowl and was a Second-team All-Pro. He was also named to the Sports Illustrated All-Pro team by Peter King who quipped, "Not sure, but I think he's got an anvil in his pads." He only got to play six seasons before his body broke down.
He also drew praise from Hall of Fame tackle Dan Dierdorf, "Hedgecock won't ever lead the NFL in rushing but he'll lead block for a lot a yards and he's a gifted receiver with soft hands who runs good routes."
He was a college defensive end and is one of the bigger blocking backs on this list—6-3, 266 pounds.
20t. Patrick DiMarco
Second-team All-Pro in 2015. DiMarco has played six seasons and 99 games.
20t. Ovie Mughelli
Mughelli was Second-team All-Pro in both 2006 and 2010. He played 107 games in nine seasons.
20t. Marc Logan
20t. Michael Robinson
More versatile than most, not a bruiser.
20t. Marcel Reese
20t. Montell Owens
20t. Fred Beasley
20t. Steve Smith
20t. Richie Anderson
20t. Justin Griffith
20t. Fred McCrary
20t. Bruce Miller
20t. Mike Sellers
20t. Brad Hoover
20t. Jim Kleinsasser
Played both fullback and tight end/H-Back, Kleinsasser played 13 seasons and 188 games—all for the Vikings. He was a big man, 6-3, 272. He played more tight end than lead blocker, but he did both well. Also, the author of his piece was mistaken for him in Minneapolis and asked for an autograph because of said confusion back in the day. So there is that.
20t. Tony Paige
Finn played seven seasons and 106 games before injuries took him out of the game. Was a cult hero for Giants fans who liked his style. Decent speed (4.6-4.7) for a fullback.
20t. Greg Comella
Comella was pretty nifty for a guy who was 6-1, 245 pounds, and had reliable hands.
20t. Jason McKie
Six years and 63 games, Line has been a Pro Bowl alternate and is solid as a blocker but rarely touches ball in the passing or running game.
20t. James Develin
Still active, Develin was a Pro Bowler in 2017 and in six seasons has played in 81 games.
Seven seasons and 82 games for Polite in 2009 he was All-pro by ESPN and USA Today.
Sowell was a dynamite special teams player and in his seventh season, he finally secured the starting fullback job which he held for three seasons.
Six year and 85 games for Hall, he was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2008.
Weaver played just five seasons and 63 games but he was All-Pro in 2009.
Schmitt played just five years and 74 games. He was very powerful but his body broke down like so many of these guys.
Great size and power. He played eight seasons, 113 games and went to a Pro Bowl 199 as a special teams player. Took over fullback spot in 2001 so he didn't really get enough reps but when he hit connected it was fun to see so we included him.
20t. Jeremi Johnson
Johnson was monster-sized 5-11, 275 pounds, he played six seasons for the Bengals. In 2005, he caught three touchdown passes, remarkable for a man of his size.
For his position, Olawale was on the smaller side (6-1, 240) but was still very effective, especially in 2015-16 when he was one of the top, if not top-rated fullbacks in the game.
no mike alstott or larry centers? they make not have been the best blockers, but they still played fullback at a high-level. Jim Finn ... Greg Comella? come on man.ReplyDelete
This seems crazy to say, but by the author's definition Mike Alstott was a halfback. And I'm inclined to agree with him.Delete
Alstott did play *some* FB, but was a tailback in the I (green formation). This is a "modern fullback" list, blocking backs--the "guards in the backfield" Alstott was a ball carrierDelete
Really enjoying reading all of these top player by position lists and have learned a lot from them. However, I was wondering if Keith Byars would have been a better fit on this list instead of the TE's list. I know he was often lined up on the wing, but I remember watching him when he played with the Dolphins and he was usually lined up in the backfield as either a blocker or third down back and was often given the ball on short yardage situation. I think he fits better as a FB/H-Back type than as a TE.ReplyDelete
we focues ob blockers and though Byars did block, he was more of a runner/receiver . . .Delete
Wow, You missed one of the very best.Johnny Davis The B-1 bomber. He was a devastating Blocker. Won a Super Bowl with Joe Montana. A crippling and punishing fullback.ReplyDelete
He was really outside the purview, 1981 was his last season in that role, and he was really part of a two-back set, rather than the I-back type fullbacks we featued here. He was more of a short-yardage option for the 49ers in 1981, rather than a fulltime lead blocker like Rathman or others...Delete
49ers, in 1981, were a RB by committe, and ran from mostly split-backs (red or brown) and little green (I-formation) so he's not part of what we covered in article
Johnny Davis also block for Ricky Bell with the Tampa Bay BuccaneersDelete
great content.. I'd like to see something on backfield evolution. from when FBs were legitimate runners, to when teams switched to split backs referred to only as RBs in the 70s to the 80s when FB became the guard in the backfield, to the 90s where teams employed FBs as 3rd down passing threats, to the 2000s when 11 sets all but eliminated the position to the late 2010s when teams like baltimore, tennesee and SF reconstituted both the running game and the fullback.ReplyDelete
Great list. I definitely agree with this list for the most part. It’s a shame that the fullback position gets overlooked by so many people and they don’t get the credit they deserve. There are some great young fullbacks in today’s game, such as Derek Watt, CJ Ham, and Alec Ingold, and later on in their careers I think they will definitely end up being all time greats for the fullback position.ReplyDelete
Tim Wilson is the first blocking FB I remember. For 3 seasons he was the perfect compliment to Earl.ReplyDelete
I think he was the first guy to do this particular "job"Delete