How Much Value Does a Fullback Provide to a Run Game?

The fullback is on the verge of extinction, but should it be?

As a child, I was enraptured by the Jurassic Park movies. My six-year-old brain could hardly comprehend the notion that creatures as big and brutal as these enormous lizards could ever have existed, let alone that they were the dominant life forms on the planet for such a long period of time. Clearly, we in the present have no reference point for how that would have affected the world if dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.

It saddens me to think that soon the true fullback will likely go extinct in the NFL, the same way dinosaurs did on this planet. Fortunately for Vonta Leach and John Kuhn, that extinction likely won’t involve a massive asteroid.

As we see the use of a traditional fullback declining significantly in today’s NFL, it raises a question of how much teams have benefited from having a dedicated lead blocker in their run game. I decided to compare teams who heavily used a blocking fullback and those who did not, in order to see which rushing units were more effective. Does it make sense to let the dinosaurs go extinct, or should we “spare no expense” to preserve this disappearing commodity?

Pioneers in the Field

In 2013’s preseason, Vonta Leach rapidly became expendable when the team looked to transition away from a two-back power-run scheme, but was quickly re-signed to add more blocking solidity to the team in the wake of tight end Dennis Pitta's hip injury. Leach was cut despite having been the best lead blocker in the league from 2011 to 2012 according to Pro Football Focus’s blocking metrics. He further proved this value of the position by the fact that, from 2011 to 2012, the Ravens only ran 78 rushing plays that didn’t include Leach as a lead blocker, accumulating 3,897 rushing yards in that timeframe.

If players like Leach have been so integral to the success of their teams’ ground games, why are they getting let go? I looked into this with the help of Net Expected Points (NEP) – our signature metric here at numberFire.

NEP is a measure of a team or player’s value on the football field that contextualizes box score production. It's a purer measure of the contribution a player makes to his team scoring on any given drive (really, the whole goal of football), and this contribution is measured in expected points from that drive. You can read more about NEP in our glossary. Rushing NEP, specifically, is NEP gained or lost on any rushing play.

I pulled up the value of each team’s rushing offense via NEP with a fullback versus those that didn’t use one, from 2007 onward. Teams with a fullback in on 60% of rushing snaps or more per Pro Football Focus made the cut for our lead blocker group, and I averaged the Rushing NEP for teams in both groups in order to compare their success.

Terrible Lizards

To give some historical context to this, 15 teams in 2007 had employed heavy-dosage fullbacks, including some stalwarts like Leach, Greg Jones of Jacksonville, and Le’Ron McClain. In the seven years since, that number has been cut in half, as only seven teams in 2013 used a fullback on 60% or more of their offensive snaps. The decline of this great creature has been sharp and sudden. So what’s the cause?

The table below compares the fullback teams with non-fullback teams since 2007 in our NEP categories, and then shows the difference between the two. Adjusted Rushing NEP is the same as raw Rushing NEP, however, it takes into account an adjustment for the strength of an opponent.

GroupPass-to-Run RatioAdj. NEPAdj. Rush NEP
FB Advantage-0.14+8.73+3.87

This is fairly straightforward, but there are some interesting things to pull from this data. The first is that, logically, the teams built to run with a stronger rushing attack had a lower ratio of pass-to-rush plays. Also, as one could expect, there's an advantage (and a significant one) in Adjusted Rushing NEP for teams with a lead blocker. Interestingly, though, it seems that teams with a fullback also tend to have stronger overall offensive value. This could very well be a result of some teams like Carolina, who have decent receiving fullbacks like Mike Tolbert, adding extra depth to their receiving corps, but one player’s contribution in receptions couldn’t make that much of an impact.

Though there isn’t a certain causation, there is an interesting correlation between total NEP and having a fullback on your team. Logically, we’d assume that one more backfield member would mean one less receiving option, and therefore less opportunity to accrue passing value, so it actually might harm the other side of the offense. However, it seems to still provide (whether through the fullback receiving, or providing additional blocking protection for the quarterback) a decent bonus for teams in all phases of the offense.

Unless They Figure Out How to Open Doors

The spread offense and the advent of the high octane passing attack is leading to a major devaluation of the fullback position. However, the data on these players’ own value and the value they bring to their teams shows that perhaps teams should consider keeping a primary blocking back on their rosters. Hybrid H-back players like Tolbert, Marcel Reece, and even Charles Clay can be versatile alternatives to the standard crusher blockers like Henry Hynoski, and ones that can contribute as receivers, rushers, and protectors.

I hope the fullback can continue to evolve and adapt, and doesn’t get trapped in the NFL fossil record. Today we’ve taken a small step toward proving that it’s too valuable of a position for us to let that happen.