Despite the fact that the NFL is throwing the ball now more than ever -- one of the reasons behind the fact that the 300-carry “bell cow” appears to be dying out -- the market for fullbacks appears to be pretty robust.
While they still don’t make big dollars (the best free-agent deal given to a fullback this offseason likely went to Erik Lorig, who signed a four-year, $4.8 million deal with the Saints) the continued specialization of the game has allowed some fullbacks to become important offensive elements. According to Pro Football Focus, 14 teams had fullbacks register at least 300 snaps last season, led by Carolina’s Mike Tolbert (606), San Francisco’s Bruce Miller (534) and Oakland’s Marcel Reece (514). Going back to 2008, there have been at least 12 fullbacks a year with 300 snaps or more, with the low point coming in 2011 when 12 fullbacks hit the 300-snap mark. The high point came in 2009, when 18 fullbacks had at least 300 snaps.
You can invest in elite wide receivers and high-level tight ends, but at the same time, more often than not, the teams that lean on fullbacks end up playing longer than those who don’t. This past season, six of the top 11 teams to have a fullback with 300 or more snaps ended up reaching the postseason. In 2012, five of the nine teams to have a fullback break the 300-snap mark reached the playoffs. And in 2011, it was six of the top nine. It’s obviously not the only reason those teams made the playoffs, but the complementary component that a good fullback can offer can give teams an added dimension when it creating a well-rounded offense.
In New England, prior to 2013, the last full-time fullback was Heath Evans, who was with the Patriots from 2005 to 2008. Evans filled a multitude of responsibilities for the New England offense, acting as an occasional ballcarrier (Evans rushed for a total of 453 yards in his four seasons with the Patriots, but 158 came in the second and third week he was on the New England roster in 2005), but mostly a lead blocker for the likes of Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk, Laurence Maroney and Sammy Morris.
Since then, the Patriots have added occasional part-time backs like Lex Hilliard or Lousaka Polite. But 2013 saw the return of the neck roll on a full-time basis, as fullback James Develin played in 16 games last season for New England, and was 11th overall among fullbacks with 327 snaps. (It was the first time a fullback played 16 games for the Patriots since Evans did it in 2008.)
While the responsibilities these days vary from team to team, most of the time, fullbacks can usually be put into one of two camps: an occasional presence out of the backfield as a pass catcher, or as straight-ahead blocker given to winning the one-on-one battles when they meet linebackers in the hole. (There are also the rare occasions where a fullback can be utilized as an offensive bull rusher: Tolbert had 101 carries for 361 yards in 2013, while Reece -- 46 carries, 218 rushing yards -- was essentially used the same way by the Raiders.)
While Develin had four catches for 62 yards last season, he’s more of the latter. The 6-foot-3, 251-pounder is a little bigger than most current fullbacks (by way of comparison, Tolbert is 5-foot-9, 245 pounds), and while he did work primarily as a blocker helping pave the way for the likes of LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, he was able to flash some nice versatility on occasion, executing some of the responsibilities of a tight end while lining up on the hip of a tackle to work as a blocker.
The Patriots certainly liked what the Brown product brought to the table last year: According to Football Outsiders, New England was one of the few teams to run better from two-back formations (5.0 yards per carry) than from single-back formations (4.6 yards per carry). And he provided one of the highlights of the 2013 season, an extra-effort touchdown run against the Texans where he kept his legs churning on the way to a 1-yard touchdown run.
“James is very smart (and he) works very, very hard,” Patriots personnel chief Nick Caserio said Sunday. “He had a great offseason – there are a lot of guys, but just specific to James, had a great offseason. Really as a player, from day one that he entered the program to where he is now, he’s really improved. A lot of that, he’s put in a lot of time. It’s a credit to him but he’s smart, he’s versatile.
“He gives you a little bit of flexibility, because he can do a number of different things. He can block the force in the running game (and) he can put his hand on the line of scrimmage, and block the force on the line of scrimmage.”
Caserio provided an example of Develin’s versatility in last year's blowout win over the Ravens, noting on one play, the fullback was lined up detached from the traditional formation, but because he was able to successfully execute his assignment, the Patriots were able to pick up a sizable gain.
Most fullbacks wouldn’t be able to operate in space, but it was no issue for Develin.
“James has done a lot of good things since he’s been here,” Caserio added. “He’s earned all of his opportunities with his performance and his work ethic.”
There are questions regarding the use of the fullback in the New England offense: Was last year a one-off event where the Patriots, finding themselves bogged down in the passing game on occasion, decided to run the ball more -- and as a result, decided they needed a fullback? Or is it the beginning of a trend for New England, a team that went out and drafted three offensive linemen with impressive college pedigrees in hopes of trying to further bolster a run game that ended on a strong note in 2013?
Develin’s future with the Patriots is unclear, but even though the NFL remains a pass-first league, it’s clear that there will always be a need for a talented fullback. While no one is suggesting that bull rushers will become more valued than the bell cows, the numbers say the big dudes with neck rolls are in demand now more than ever.