Saturday, October 9, 2021

William Fuller—The Fuller Rush Man

 By John Turney 
Former North Carolina defensive tackle William Fuller was a defensive lineman for the Tar Heels from 1980 to 1983. He was a consensus All-America as a senior and totaled 81 tackles and led the team with five sacks and 17 tackles for a loss. He also earned First-team All-America honors as a junior and is one of only seven Tar Heel players to be named First-team All-America twice. He is one of only three defensive linemen ever to make the All-ACC team three times. Tar Heels defensive MVP and received a Japan Bowl invitation.
Fuller had 22 tackles for losses in both 1981 and 1983. He still holds the UNC career record for tackles for losses with 57 and ranks sixth with 20 sacks. He also forced four fumbles and recovered three; broke up nine passes and made 157 career tackles.

He was voted to the 2016 College Football Hall of Fame class in 2016. He had been inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame twelve years earlier. Two years before that he was named to the Atlantic Coast Conference's 50th Anniversary Football Team. He had a boatload of honors.

Fuller was selected by the Philadelphia Stars in the 1984 USFL Territorial Draft and signed with the Stars for four years and $1.6 million. In the Summer he was also drafted in the NFL supplemental draft of players in other leagues (USFL and CFL) by the Los Angeles Rams.

Coming out of school he was 6-3, 250 or so pounds, and had a 4.8-4.9 forty time—good, but not elite. But he had a solid build and good quickness and strength. Had he not signed with the USFL he would have been a first-round pick for someone. 

With the Stars, he was part of two USFL championships and was a starter both years, but missed five games in 1984 with a broken foot. In 1985 he made the All-USFL team and had 8.5 sacks. 
With the USFL folding in after the 1985 season those drafted in that supplemental draft of 1984 had their NFL rights assigned to the club that drafted them meaning the Rams held Fuller's rights. Rams coach John Robinson expressed interest in Fuller and the feeling was mutual. Fuller was anxious to play football again "I've been out of football for a year" and said to the media "The Rams are a great team and if I had my way I'd have been in Los Angeles at the beginning of training camp.

In mid-August, there were reports that Fuller was going to sign with the Rams but the deal didn't happen but in mid-September Fuller signed a contract for about $300,000 for a two-year deal. He passes a physical, had his publicity photo taken, and was assigned number 95, and was set to be activated two weeks later. During workouts Robinson said he's "very quick and appears to be somewhat sophisticated in his pass-rushing techniques. He looks like he could help us as an outside rusher. He looks like he could be a fine player".

As it turned out Fuller was signed to give the Oilers an extra player for the Rams to offer in acquiring Jim Everett. Unbeknownst to John Robinson Rams team president John Shaw gave the Oilers permission to allow Fuller to workout with them. 

A few days after signing was traded to the Oilers as part of a package the acquired Jim Everett and he became an Oiler. The Oilers got Fuller, Kent Hill, two first-round picks, and a fifth-round pick for Everett—quite a haul. Fuller, all along was trade bait. 

His first two years as an Oiler Fuller (now around 275 pounds) played right end in nickel situations. The Oilers were a base 3-4 team but used a four-man line in pass-rush situations and that is what his role was—get after the passer. He showed flashes but he was not getting to the quarterback—warning track power (lots of deep flies but few homers).

In 1988 he was the starting right end in the 3-4 base but moved to left end in nickel. Left end Ray Childress moved inside, to tackle in those situations. He started to produce as an NFL player and did for the next eight seasons averaged 10 sacks a year from 1988 through 1996.

In 1989 Fuller began the year (2 starts) and ended the year (2 starts) and left end. Starting nose tackle Doug Smith missed the first few games so Ray Childress filled in there and Fuller took Childress' spot. Then at the end of the season, Childress was injured so Fuller stepped in again. Fuller also started five games at right end and in the other games was the designated rusher. 

The following season the Oilers switched to the 4-3 and Fuller moved to left end permanently and Childress played left tackle. This alignment and position likely led to Fuller's greatest success, From 1990 through 1997 he was a top-flight left end. There were some times when he sunk to defensive tackle when the Oilers employed the 46 defense, which nearly every team tinkered with after the Bears had such success with it and the Oilers were no exception. 

In 1991 Fuller had 15 sacks and made his first Pro Bowl and he was also named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week 16 of that season. He was also named the AFC Defensive Lineman of the Year and his sack total led the AFC and tied for second in the NFL. His number fell some in 1992 but his play didn't—it was not any kind of "off" year even though his sack total wasn't close to his 1991 production. 

In 1993 the Oilers got the architect of the 46 defense and the Oilers ran it a lot. The defensive staff got the boot after the Bills great comeback in the 1992 Playoffs so Buddy Ryan became the defensive coordinator and the defense surged.

The 1990-92 Oiler defenses were excellent, third-fewest points allowed, third-most sacks, fourth in rushing defense, fifth in interceptions, and fourth-best in total defense. They also tied for the fourth-best record in the NFL but the playoff fold in 1992 was too much for the Oilers brass to keep Jim Eddy and his staff around. So in came Buddy Ryan.

Ryan took the Oilers to first in run defense, first in picks, and fourth in points allowed, and first in sacks—Ryan certainly took the defense to the next level. 

When the Oilers were in the 46 played the weakside end—the Richard Dent position and in the 4-3 base and nickel he remained at left end. He finished with 10 sacks and he batted away nine passes. In Week 13 Fuller snagged his second AFC Defensive Player of the Week Award.

Fuller was perfectly set up for free agency. He had put together four excellent seasons and had a great season in his "contract" year. He would be getting a significant raise from his 1993 salary of $1.25 million.  The Oilers themselves, initially, him $2.5 million for 1994 alone. 

In 1994 he signed with the Eagles after a tour meeting with several NFL teams including Tampa Bay, Arizona, and Washington. He was Charlie Casserly said he was an excellent player, not "an angular player" but still an "effective rusher". Angular means tall and lean like maybe a Jevon Kearse. Fuller was shorter, stockier. Not sure was Casserly would call that. The media seemed to think Fuller would sign with Washington, being born in Norfolk, Virginia, and growing up in the Chesapeake area attending Indian River High School where he was a three-sport letterman, graduating in 1980. 

Near the end of his tour of teams, the Oilers upped their offer to a three-year $7.8 million dollar deal that Fuller considered but finally rejected for the Eagles three-year $8.5 million offer.

The Eagles were hoping to make a move in 1994 but it turned out to be a disappointment and head coach Rich Kotite lost his job after the season and was replaced by Ray Rhodes, who kept Emmitt Thomas as the defensive coordinator and kept the same up-the-field type 4-3 scheme that Fuller (now around 284 pounds) and his linemate Andy Harmon excelled in. 

The Eagles, under Rhodes, went to the playoffs in 1995 and 1996 and even won a Wildcard game against the Lions in 1995. It was a good defense, though not great and Fuller was the best player on the defense those three seasons. 

With the Eagles, Fuller played his best football in terms of the "numbers". Those three years he averaged 43 tackles, 6.5 stuffs, 12 sacks and four forced fumbles and he also made the Pro Bowl all three years. His 35.5 sacks over that three-year period led all NFL defensive ends despite having a nagging hamstring injury in the middle of the 1995 season. In Week 17 Fuller got his third Player of the Week award for his career, his only one in the NFC.
After his contract expired after the 1996 season Fuller and the Eagles tried to come to an agreement but it dragged on. The Eagles were also interested in Neil Smith who was also a free agent and making the rounds. Reportedly Smith was down to the Broncos (where he signed) and the Eagles. 

Ultimately, in early April, the Eagles offered Fuller a one-year deal for $3 million. Fuller wanted a two-year deal and took an offer from the Chargers that totaled $4.4 million over two seasons with $2 million upfront.

After the loss of Fuller,  Ray Rhodes said he wanted Fuller back, "I don't want to sit here and tell you I didn't want William on this football team because I did. he added, "I think it was a pride thing for him, he wanted a two-year deal ad we thought our offer was fair."
However, those final two seasons were not good ones for the Fuller Rush Man. He was still stout versus the run but in 1997 he was slowed by a quad injury and was not getting to the quarterback (3 sacks). He actually was replaced on passing downs the last half of that season (and the next season as well). He looked larger in San Diego, but we've not seen any actual weight listings, but he looks closer to 300 pounds than 285. 

Even he knew he was not up to par. Fuller said, "If I don't start playing better no one is going to take me next year".

He did get invited back to the Chargers and he again struggled through the season. He had a calf injury midseason and missed a few games and for the second straight year ended with 3 sacks. Those three took him to 100.5, so he made the "Century Club" for sacks.

The Chargers were excellent versus the run, being number one in the NFL in yards allowed rushing and lowest rushing average and as a unit recorded 41 sacks, up from the 27 (an NFL-Low) in 1997 so Fuller was a big part of that, again playing mostly run downs. 

Fuller would start, play in the base defense but in nickel right end Marco Coleman would move over to left end in place of Fuller and Raylee Johnson would play right end in Coleman's base position. 

So, he was Fuller Run-Stop Man while a Charger. 

Apparently, that was enough to interest the Baltimore Ravens because they offered him $3 million for a one-year deal in 1999. Fuller decided to retire instead citing that he was ready to spend more time with his family and that the Ravens were in rebuilding mode and he'd had enough losing with the Chargers. 

The Ravens won the Super Bowl a year later. The rebuilding was quicker, perhaps, than Fuller expected. 

At 6-3, 251-284 (depending on what year) today Fuller would be a solid player, in his prime he had good base, was able to stop the run with good leverage. His speed would be questioned (4.8-4.9 forty) but his get-off was good, had good quickness and excellent strength. 

Some coaches now might be tempted to play him at three-technique to take advantage of his squatter physique and short-area quickness to beat guards. His skill set would be a good fit, in our view.

In watching he was were a slap-and-rip-type rusher. He would slap the shoulder of a blocker, dip, and get under a tackle with a "rip" and could hold his rush arc while being pushed out by the blocker. As a counter to that, he'd use an inside club move. He'd also spin inside once in a whole. He had okay speed, but not enough to consistently get the corner.

He also was alert, got his hands up, and as a result blocked 57 passes which would be a good asset today with as many short passes are thrown in the modern game. 

In addition to end in a 40 scheme or a three-tech, he'd also make a fine 5-tech in a 30 scheme. He did that in Houston and did well in the base and today would be no different though the way 3-man fronts as changed, they no longer two-gap like they did back in the day and he'd need to play at his higher weights (285-290) but he'd be effective.  

After his career, he has been involved in all sorts of community work and has always been active in defeating juvenile diabetes most of his adult life and continuing what he began during his career in supporting Special Olympics, Ronald McDonald House, and the Boys' Clubs of America among other things.

Yes, he's another of the NFL's great guys with a very good career.

Career stats—


  1. A tough pass rusher with a borderline HOF case, though the free agent money may have made him more complacent with the Chargers ...