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Mike Tolbert is revitalizing the fullback position and making it fun

The multi-talented and versatile playmaker is maybe the best of a dying position.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

There's just something inherently awesome about a really large man carrying a football, and as far as NFL fullbacks go, no one comes close to matching the running style and celebration swag of the Panthers' Mike Tolbert.

It's easy to like a 5'9, 250-pound guy that can dunk a basketball and has nimble enough feet to garner carries on an NFL team, and even if I can't identify the exact moment I knew I was a Tolbert fan for life, it probably was around the same time he did this:

It's not just the dance moves, though really his celebration style would be enough.

No, it's also how he plays the position. Fullbacks are slowly being phased out of many NFL rosters -- replaced by an extra tight end or even a defensive lineman by some teams looking for a part-time lead blocker -- but if there was an argument for reversing that trend, it'd come from studying tape on Tolbert. The All-Pro Panther is a little bit of everything for Carolina's offense -- a lead blocker, a pass protector, a ball carrier and a receiver -- and he's a staple in their ever-important short-yardage and red-zone packages.

As an integral part of Carolina's unique and elite run game, Tolbert helped the Panthers become one of the best short-yardage teams in the NFL and they finished first in red zone percentage, in part because of Tolbert's versatility near the goal line.

On third and fourth downs with fewer than three yards to go in 2015, the Panthers ran the ball 92 times and converted 65 percent of the time, sixth-best in the NFL. Of those plays, Tolbert touched the ball 24 times (three being catches), converting 70.8 percent into first downs while scoring one touchdown.

Now, I'm not going to say that Tolbert is the Panthers' key to winning the Super Bowl or even their top X-factor player in the big game, but it's always fun to celebrate the guys that do the dirty work once in a while as well. Tolbert played in just 38.3 percent of Carolina's offensive snaps this season, but for some context into his value, that was the highest percentage any fullback in the NFL played this season league wide. He certainly made the most of those snaps and earned an All-Pro nod in the process.

So, to give you an idea of some things to watch for in Carolina's Super Bowl 50 matchup with the Broncos, here are a few examples of the ways in which Tolbert is utilized.

Lead blocker

The main purview for a fullback in the NFL is still as a lead blocker. Tolbert had a key block in the first offensive play of the Panthers' Divisional Round matchup with the Seahawks, and it helped spring Jonathan Stewart for a 59-yard run.

You can see how, in this case, Carolina starts out with Cam Newton under center, and Tolbert leads the way on the power-O run play to the left. He really has two key blocks on this play -- first, a quick stiff-arm to DT Brandon Mebane (No. 92), who has penetrated through the line enough where it looks like he could completely blow the play up -- and second, on linebacker K.J. Wright (No. 50) -- who is looking to fill the gap and stop Stewart in his tracks.

Tolbert's arm to Mebane's chest is just enough to hold him at bay long enough for Stewart to sneak by, and his block on Wright pushes the linebacker back violently. Stewart slices through.

It's subtle, for sure, but Tolbert's role on this play can't be understated. He was key.

Pass catcher

Obviously, there are a ton of examples of Tolbert's lead-blocking skills, but he does a lot more in their offense, including as a receiver out of the backfield. In 2015, he caught 18 passes for 154 yards and three touchdowns. Here are a few ways that the Panthers used him as a pass catcher.

The scramble outlet

Cam Newton is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL at evading pressure and because he's so incredibly difficult to bring down, he can create big plays once the design goes off the rails. Here, I think that Tolbert's job is to leak out after initially pass protecting, and Newton has that in the back of his mind as a last resort.

Newton evades the pass rush, steps up into the pocket and then has to adjust again as it completely collapses. He has the presence of mind to look left to his outlet option in Tolbert, and the 250-pound fullback has a shitload of green in front of him when he makes the catch.

A huge gain.

Spider Y-Banana

Jon Gruden made the Spider Y-Banana concept famous but it's a very common and useful play that many teams use. In this case, the Y-Banana designates that tight end Greg Olsen (the "Y") runs a little banana route at the goal-line, and behind him, Tolbert releases out into a similar route after initially looking like he'll just pass protect on the right.

Jonathan Stewart cuts the incoming pass rusher in the backfield, and Tolbert is home free, chased only by a defender in the middle of the field.

The v-route over the middle

This is just another very basic running back route, but I include this particular snap because it demonstrates Tolbert's excellent hands.

I'm guessing that when Newton threw that, he figured it would hit the ground. Tolbert somehow comes up with it with one hand.

The shoot

I like this concept a lot. Often times, opposing defenses will assign a linebacker into coverage on a running back, should the running back/fullback release into a route. In this case, that's middle linebacker Deone Bucannon for Arizona. On this play, the Panthers have drawn it up so the two outside receiver routes create a natural pick on Bucannon.

Olsen's "route" here is a little suspect (he's not allowed to start blocking before the pass is thrown) but the Panthers get away with it.

Look for this route to figure into Carolina's plans in the Super Bowl. They'll have to create natural picks against the Broncos' linebackers because of the speed they have in that area of the field.

Running back

Of course, Tolbert is more than just a fullback -- and as you can see in some of the clips above, Carolina uses him as a regular running back at times as well. Here's a few things you may see the Panthers run in Santa Clara.

The shotgun read option

I love this play. The right tackle and left guard pull to their left, and Newton hands it off to Tolbert in a read-option look. Once Tolbert gets a head of steam going into the secondary, I pity the safety or defensive back that has to come forward to make that tackle. With Denver's safeties both banged up going into the Super Bowl, this could be a scary proposition for Broncos fans.

Tolbert is not afraid of contact, I'll put it that way.

The first option in a triple-option

One play on the read option that Carolina likes to utilize is the triple-option, a college-style play that almost no other NFL teams use these days. In their diamond formation (with tight end Ed Dickson to Newton's left and Cameron Artis-Payne behind him), Newton's first option is on the dive by Tolbert. After holding the defensive end as long as humanly possible (a talent of Newton's), he gives to Tolbert, who carries it up the gut for a nice little gain.

Newton's second option is to run, and his third would be a pitch to Artis-Payne.

Counter OF

This is a cool counter play that the Panthers like to use, pulling their guard (O) and fullback/tight end/H-back (F) across the formation to lead block for the running back, which in this case is Tolbert.

I think this play in particular demonstrates that despite his size, Tolbert still has some pretty quick feet.

He picks up a chunk of yardage.


As I wrote earlier this week, I think that with the Broncos' extremely strong pass rush and excellent secondary, Carolina will really need to run the ball well to win in Santa Clara. That starts with the offensive line, and Newton is the linchpin, but Tolbert could really feature in a lot as a lead-blocking, pass-catching, running playmaker. I'm expecting to hear his name called on a few big plays in Super Bowl 50.

If that's true, we might get treated to some of the best celebrations the NFL has seen this year.