Why you should care
Versatility does wonders when it comes to putting points on the board.
The final seconds of the first quarter are ticking down in Super Bowl LI, and the only player who has caught a pass for the Atlanta Falcons — a team with the league’s top offense in 2016 — isn’t star wide receiver Julio Jones or do-it-all running back Devonta Freeman.
It’s fullback Patrick DiMarco.
There’s no question that Atlanta got some nice production out of DiMarco in its 2016 passing game. In fact, DiMarco looked so good with the Falcons that the Buffalo Bills made him the highest-paid player at his position in free agency this offseason, offering him a four-year, $8.4 million contract — until the San Francisco 49ers blew that number out of the water in March when they agreed to pay fullback Kyle Juszczyk $21 million over four years.
What’s going on? Aren’t fullbacks a dying breed in the NFL? Well, not if they can play the H-back role that many NFL teams are now scrambling to incorporate into their offenses.
Let’s not think of him as a fullback. Let’s think of him as an ‘OW’ — offensive weapon.
John Lynch, general manager, San Francisco 49ers
The NFL has become such a pass-heavy league that when running backs are on the field, they’re often hauling in tosses. But with some creative exceptions, traditional offensive skill positions — wide receiver, tight end, running back — are limited in where they can line up and what they can do. Enter the H-back — a cross between a fullback and a tight end in most NFL playbooks. He lines up similarly to a tight end but set back from the line of scrimmage as more of a runner than a receiver. Increasingly, though, coaches and offensive coordinators are getting this position more involved in the passing game, revolutionizing what used to be a straightforward blocking role.
After the 49ers signed Juszczyk, general manager John Lynch said in a press conference, “Let’s not think of him as a fullback. Let’s think of him as an ‘OW’ — offensive weapon.” Now, lots of other NFL teams are about to unveil OWs of their own.
Why is it important to have this new-look weapon? What can he do that traditional receivers can’t?
“What it does is give the offense an advantage all the time,” former NFL safety and ESPN NFL writer Matt Bowen says, explaining that an H-back forces defenses to face something they always struggle with: how to contain a player who isn’t lining up where he’s expected. “Do you play your base defense, whether you’re a 4-3 or 3-4?” Bowen asks, referring to the number of down linemen and linebackers. “Or do you have to bring your nickel in?” (An alignment with five defensive backs.) “Or, now do you have to bring what I call your ‘big nickel’ — when you have three safeties in the game?”
It’s part of the thrust and parry as offensive and defensive minds try to counter each other. “The NFL game has never been about scheme,” Bowen adds, “because everyone runs the same stuff — they just dress it up. It’s about putting your personnel in a favorable matchup.”
An H-back (or “flex”/“move” tight end, as he is also called) used in conjunction with a running back suggests the offense is in two-back mode. In response, the defense puts more players on the line. But move the H-back right before the snap, and he can function like a slot receiver in a triple wide-receiver set. As Bowen explains, he can then be attached to the formation or he can be split out wide … and suddenly, it’s very difficult for the defense to do its job.
To be sure, this doesn’t mean all 32 NFL teams are going to pay fullbacks $5 million a year to catch some passes, especially if they have three outstanding wide receivers or two dominant tight ends. But having a Swiss Army knife in an H-back allows teams to use that pass-happy, two-tight-end formation.
The evolution in the H-back role can be partially attributed to the NFL’s growing adoption of spread elements in its offenses. CBS Sports’ Jared Dubin pointed out in 2015 that just three years ago, only seven teams used a fullback for more than 250 snaps; teams are “taking that guy off the field mostly to add an additional wide receiver.”
But what if that player can be the additional wide receiver without defenses even realizing it? That’s what NFL teams are banking on as they utilize this new-look fullback/H-back. And the stats support it; per Dubin, plays in which a tight end, running back or H-back splits out wide “generate more yards on a per-play basis than those featuring multiple backs or tight ends.”
It’s also a matter of supply and demand. The athletes coming out of college are better equipped to handle running and receiving duties in addition to blocking. “The modern-day fullback looks less bulky than in the past,” says NFL fullback Anthony Firkser, who signed with the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent this spring. “With less mass on their body they are able to be more fluid and smoother with their running ability in order to be athletic enough to beat linebackers on various routes.”
Like Bowen, Firkser thinks more NFL teams are signing H-back-type players because it gives the offense more versatility without having to sub in different personnel, which creates favorable mismatches on defense.
As training camps wind down, Firkser, Juszczyk and DiMarco are just some of the league’s fullbacks who could see their roles expand in 2017. Who says the fullback is a dying breed?