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Why fullbacks won’t die off in the NFL, explained by the 3 at the 2018 Combine

There’s still room for big guys in the backfield, as long as they’re versatile.

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl-North Practice Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS — Football’s becoming more spread out. That’s been true for years in high school and college, and it becomes more true all the time in the NFL.

The de-clustering of the sport is naturally not the best thing for fullbacks, who have historically specialized at mashing in close quarters. There are now college teams that don’t use them, and many NFL teams have basically eliminated them.

“We explained what a fullback is to our defense. They were very intrigued,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said before a game against ground-and-pound Stanford in 2017.

But the position’s not dead. Around 20 NFL teams are still in the fullback market. Pro Football Focus graded 18 qualifiers at the position in 2017, and even some of the league’s most spread-oriented teams had them. The fullbacks who showed up at the NFL Combine expect about two-thirds of the league will consider them.

The spread demands more versatility from fullbacks.

The three at the combine stress they can do more than line up in the I-formation and lock horns with linebackers.

Oklahoma’s Dimitri Flowers:

I’d say I’m more of a versatile, athletic fullback. I do a lot of different things ... That’s the No. 1 thing out here throughout all my team interviews and coaches interviews, and stuff such as that. I’m not the typical, “line up in the I,” iso fullback. I can absolutely get the job done. However. You look at my college film, I line up at tight end. I line up at H-back. I line up at running back. I’ve lined up almost everywhere on the field. That’s one thing coaches really appreciate about my film. They love my versatility.

Western Michigan’s Donnie Ernsberger:

I think I have some versatility with moving around, a lot of motioning and stuff like that, so I’m not just gonna be stuck in the backfield all the time. They can motion me out wide. I can run routes as a slot, hybrid type of player. I can sit back in the backfield, pick up blitzes. I just think there’s more to the fullback name now than there used to be.

San Diego State’s Nick Bawden:

Something that’ll be huge for me is to get in on special teams. Be a core special teams player, be a beast, run down, make tackles ... Just being versatile, being able to get out in the flat, make catches, make people miss.

Flowers was the perpetrator of one of college football’s meanest plays in 2017. In OU’s Bedlam rivalry game against Oklahoma State, he came out of the backfield and put a convincing move on an OSU safety, who happened to be his cousin, Tre.

(“He says he tripped. Definitely didn’t trip. I just beat him,” Flowers says.)

In 2017, Flowers had 40 touches out of the backfield, including 26 catches. Bawden, a former quarterback, had 15 catches at SDSU. Ernsberger was technically a tight end and had 34 catches, though he did some fullback-like work, too. All of these players spent time as H-backs, lined up just behind a tackle and helping in run-blocking.

“When a fullback’s in the game, it’s for a reason,” Flowers says.

But the classic fullback still exists. The role might never die all the way off.

At his combine press conference, Raiders coach Jon Gruden said he wanted to “throw the game back to 1998.” That was partially a screed against analytics, but not totally.

“I would like to have a fullback,” Gruden said. “They’re a dying breed in football. I think it gives your offense a lot of deception.”

The Super Bowl Eagles didn’t have much use for one in 2017. Other good teams did, though. As often as the Patriots and Steelers used three and four receivers, they both frequently went to sets where they had fullbacks paving the way out of the backfield.

Le’Veon Bell is considered a model back for a spread offense, because of his ability to run routes and make catches from the backfield. But Bell ran plenty out of the I-formation, and his fullback, Roosevelt Nix, joined him at the Pro Bowl. When Nix was in the game, the Steelers weren’t that different than Gruden’s old Tampa Bay offenses, which featured Michael Pittman running behind bulldozer Mike Alstott.

Bawden played in Rocky Long’s pro-style system at SDSU, which featured old classics like power, lead, and iso in heavy dosages. Those are still prominent in modern offenses.

“We’re still alive,” Bawden said, “even though people like to say we’re a dying breed.”