The series of positional profiles continues this week with a look at fullbacks and tight ends, two spots which have morphed together in the last decade. Today, we consider fullbacks.
Rumors of the fullback's demise are somewhat exaggerated, though the lean times continue. I've pointed out that receivers and corners are the most drafted positions. Fullback is the least taken. A source explained that the trend results from simple supply and demand, a process fantasy football players know well: every team has at least two corners and two wide receivers who play on a regular basis. With the spread and spread option attacks proliferating in college football many major programs have three to four corner and receiver groups who play regularly.
Conversely, few programs feature regular fullbacks. The same source told me that NFL draft boards might only have three to five fullbacks on them in any given year. That's bad news for teams like the Titans, Jets, Chargers and Cowboys, who like to play traditional two-back football.
The fullback pool looks shallow again, but a handful of quality prospects do exist. Dallas has scheduled an interview with Kentucky's John Conner, crusher of
Terminators linebackers. Can he go back in time, to the days of Daryl Johnston. and revive the fullback position, saving the Cowboys Nation from destruction in the process? Let's do some time travel of our own today, to understand those Moose-skills the Cowboys so covet.
Fullback is a hybrid position in Dallas' scheme. The prototype has to demonstrate five basic skills:
- He has to be football smart. Fullback is a block-first position in Dallas' scheme, so he must recognize fronts and be able to find his man on running plays and locate blitzers in protection schemes.
- He has to be a crushing blocker. This almost goes without saying; if he can't get to linebackers and safeties on their side of the line of scrimmage and at least stalemate these opponents, he's hurting the running game. If he can take proper angles and get consistent push, the Cowboys talented running backs will benefit.
- He should possess enough speed to reach the corner and seal block on toss plays or sweeps. In addition that speed should allow him to get open in the passing game.
- He should have good hands, to make plays as a passing option.
- He needs to excel on special teams.
Notice that running skill is not a high priority for fullbacks. The Cowboys will gladly take a fullback with exceptional run skills -- provided he has the other more valued skills -- but we have to go back to the days of Timmy Newsome and Ron Springs in the '80s to find Cowboys fullbacks who were true running threats. Dallas ran a lot of pro sets under Tom Landry. In today's Norv Turner, Ernie-Zampese influenced running attack, the off-set I is the base formation. The fullback does not carry anywhere near as much as he did when guys like Don Perkins, Calvin Hill, Walt Garrison and Robert Newhouse played the position.
Let's look at qualities three and four, especially number four. Dallas has a decent fullback in Deon Anderson. He checks the boxes on lines 1,2 and 5. He's produced little in the passing game, however. In his three years as the starting fullback, he has a grand total of nine catches.
Johnston, on the other hand, averaged 38 grabs a season from '91 through '96, when Turner and Zampese called the plays. Dallas could move him and Johnston's versatility messed with defenses. Note how many different personnel packages the Cowboys use today on run plays --
- a base two back, one TE set;
- a one-back, two TE set;
- a two TE, two back set.
- a one-back, three TE set.
Four different personnel groups. To work them, the Cowboys have to rotate three tight ends and Anderson. In the '90s, the OC would insert a blocking TE, an Alfredo Roberts or Kendall Watkins, when an extra TE was needed. In other cases, Johnson would line up where needed. Want him in the backfield. No problem. Need him split wide, as a receiver? Check. Want him as the tight end, so Jay Novacek can flex as an H-back? Just say so.
A '96 game against the 49ers shows the Moose-skills that Anderson and first-year flexiback John Phillips can only aspire to. Johnston played most of the game as the traditional fullback, but early in the 1st half, he lined up wide on a 3rd down. This moved Michael Irvin into the slot and got him free from bracket coverage he was facing.
Later, on a crucial 4th-and-4 play on Dallas' game-tying TD drive, Johnston lined up in a pro set, ran a seam route up the right hash out of the backfield, broke his pattern towards the left sideline when he saw Troy Aikman running from pressure, got open and caught Aikman's heave for an 8 yard gain.
In the overtime, when Dallas faced a 1st and 20 after a holding penalty, the Cowboys stayed in their base two back, one TE set. The 49ers consequently kept their base 4-3 defense on the field. Before the snap, Johnson flexed into the left slot, inside Irvin. The 49ers were still doubling Irvin, so Johnston drew Ken Norton Jr. in man coverage. Ernie Zampese called for the Moose to run a skinny post inside Norton. Johnston snagged Aikman's dart and gained 19 yards. Dallas converted the first down on the following play and marched to victory.
Has Jason Garrett ever used Anderson this way? Has Anderson ever displayed pass catching skills to suggest that Garrett should? Anderson's lack of receiving skills works against the Cowboys. When he's in the game, he's a tell that the play is most likely a run.
This is the flexibility a well-rounded fullback would add to Dallas' attack. Check the fullbacks atop this year's list, Conner and Virginia's Rashawn Jackson, to see if they possess this versatility. Not all college fullbacks do, which is why the Cowboys regularly draft tight ends like Sean Ryan and Phillips and teach them to lead block from the backfield. They may have plans to do it again; Wisconsin's Garrett Graham has received some attention and could be this year's Phillips, if the board breaks right.
Fullback isn't a need position, but a quality every-down fullback would add value. Don't be surprised if you see a fullback or a fullback in training selected with one of the Cowboys late picks.