Grading the Pro Potential: Fullbacks

The position might be fading in relevance in the NFL but it remains a key part of the Packers' offense. With John Kuhn back on a one-year contract, the Packers might be looking to add a young prospect either late in the draft or in college free agency.

"My kingdom for a great lead blocker" could be the war cry for lots of National Football League tailbacks hoping to break the rapidly rising trend of a "running back by committee" used by quite a few teams in recent years. With more and more emphasis on the passing game, having a featured ball-carrier is a rarity.

Most teams cite the high injury factor for the committee approach in the backfield, claiming they want to keep fresh legs available at all times, but with multiple-receiver sets, double-tight-end formations and the use of an H-back, the role of the classic lead-blocking fullback has become a thing of the past.

Yes, fullbacks have become a dying breed. Super Bowl champion fullback Michael Robinson is contemplating retirement, as he's received nary a nibble from other teams as he seeks employment. Such standout blockers like Le'Ron McClain (San Diego) and Vonta Leach (Baltimore) have joined Robinson in trying to wrest a roster spot for the 2014 season.

It is not only the changes in offensive philosophy that have caused this change within the league. Most teams pressing close to the salary cap look at the fullback and kicking positions as vulnerable spots to knock off a few bucks and use that "saved" money to fill another need. That was the case for Leach, who was in the final year of a contract that would have paid him $3 million. The fullback was used to being on the chopping block, as he was cut by Houston immediately after playing in the Pro Bowl after the 2010 campaign.

McClain fit in the same category — money well-spent elsewhere at the sacrifice of the safety of the team's tailback. Just look at the horrible season by the Ravens' Ray Rice after Leach and, before him, McClain, were sent packing by Baltimore. Maurice Jones-Drew's best years in Jacksonville came with Greg Jones widening the rush lanes, but with a $3.5 million price tag, he was sent shopping, finding $1 million as a member of the Texans.

The spread offense continues to be the culprit behind the classic fullback role's demise. But some teams will continue to carry on the tradition of having two backs in the backfield. Jerome Felton is regarded as the best blocker at the position. Adrian Peterson's success the last few years is directly linked to Minnesota's use of having a classic blocker leading the way for their perennial All-Pro tailback.

Last season, only six fullbacks in the league were pulling in paychecks at the $2 million level, including McClain and Robinson. McClain was the highest paid at $2.76 million, but Felton, Carolina's Mike Tolbert and Green Bay's John Kuhn made $250,000 less. Robinson was also at that level before he was cut and later re-signed by Seattle before their 2013 playoff push.

In 2013, 35 players suited up and played that position for 32 NFL teams. Among that group were some "neophyte" blockers, former college defensive players who managed to earn an NFL paycheck by changing positions. The most notable is Eric Lorig, a former defensive end at Stanford who was drafted by Tampa Bay in the seventh round of the 2010 draft. Converted to the offensive backfield, he recently signed a four-year, $4.8 million contract with the New Orleans Saints.

Spencer Larsen, currently blocking for Tampa Bay, was a linebacker at Arizona, drafted by Denver in the sixth round of the 2008 draft. He stayed with the Broncos until 2011, later joining New England before landing with the Bucs. Bruce Miller was named Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year as a junior and senior at Central Florida, but the 2011 seventh-round pick was moved to fullback after being selected by San Francisco.

When Miller was lost for the 2013 season due to injuries, he was replaced in the lineup by another former defensive player, Will Tukuafu, after the 49ers had failed to reach agreement with another former defensive player, ex-linebacker Owen Marecic, who had played for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford.

So, as injuries continue to pile up in the NFL running corps, the days of such standout classic blockers like Daryl Johnston, Emmitt Smith's blocker on three of Dallas' Super Bowl teams; Tom Rathman, regarded as the best blocker of his era in the 1980s as he led the way for Roger Craig; Jim Taylor, the Packers' sensation who is regarded as the best fullback in the game of football; and Lorenzo Neal, blocker extraordinaire for the likes of Eddie George in Tennessee and LaDanian Tomlinson in San Diego, have become a thing of the past.

For any "old time" NFL team looking to add a fullback to their game plan, their best option on draft day is a physically imposing specimen in Auburn's Jay Prosch. The Illinois transfer's pedigree speaks for itself, as tailback Tre Mason and quarterback Nick Marshall used the Tiger's blocking skills to pile up a college football-best 328.3 yards per game on the ground before falling one game short of winning the national title last season.

The complete turnaround of the Tigers' offense in 2013 had a lot to do with Prosch attacking defenders on a regular basis. He is the perfect example of the lunch-pail/blue-collar type, one that would much rather blast an opponent into the ground than blast his way into the end zone. He realizes that he will never be confused as a featured ball-carrier, especially not at his linebacker-sized frame.

"He's like Hercules," Auburn center Reese Dismukes said. "He looks like Hulk. He's like a statue." Quarterback Nick Marshall called him a machine. And offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee called him "the glue guy for what we do."

Stanford's Ryan Hewitt moved to fullback as a junior after trying to find playing time in the Cardinal's crowded tight end unit. At 6-foot-4, he's built more like an H-back, but his blocking was the main reason he received all-Pac 12 Conference honorable mention in 2012, as he served as the primary lead blocker for tailback Stepfan Taylor, who rushed for a then-school-record 1,530 yards. With Taylor having graduated, Tyler Gaffney would go on to break the school season rushing record, gaining 1,709 yards with Hewitt serving as his lead blocker on 16 of Gaffney's 21 touchdown runs. The recipient of Stanford's Team Technician Award, the senior fullback had only five carries for 8 yards and nine receptions for 46 yards, but he helped the Cardinal record 2,904 yards on the ground, its highest total during Hewitt's four seasons with the team.

Louisiana State's J.C. Copeland, aptly named IHOP (International House of Pancakes), is a virtual knockdown blocking machine. The Tigers have benefited from Copeland's position switch from the defensive line. In the last three seasons, their running attack has found the end zone 101 times, with the bulk of those touchdown-resulting blocks coming from the LaGrange, Ga., native. Since he became a full-time contributor in the backfield during his sophomore season, the Tigers have compiled a 33-7 record (82.5 winning percentage) the last three years.

When Oklahoma's Trey Millard was in the lineup last season, the Sooners were averaging 234.0 yards per game on the ground. When a knee injury cost him the final five games, Oklahoma averaged 207.8 yards per game rushing without its lead blocker. The knee injury could cost Millard on draft day. Expected to be the first fullback drafted before his injury, he has been unable to work out for teams as draft day approaches.

Marshall's Gator Hoskins is part of the "new breed" of fullbacks — shorter than ideal tight ends and H-backs who will have to greatly improve their blocking skills in hopes of becoming fullbacks and earning an NFL paycheck next year. In three seasons as a starter for the Herd, he was a highly opportunistic receiver, as he converted 28.28 percent of his catches into touchdowns, the second-highest scoring percentage in school history. The only other Marshall player to have better success in finding the end zone was Randy Moss, who produced 53 touchdowns among his 168 receptions (31.55 percent). Hoskins started 36-of-39 games at Marshall, catching 99 passes for 1,318 yards (13.31 ypc) and 28 touchdowns.

Arizona State's Chris Coyle, Idaho's Michael Lagrone and Florida's Trey Burton are other H-back types that need to adjust to life in the backfield.

There is likely to be some teams looking for a Marcel Reece-type (Oakland) of speedy pass catcher with a nose for the end zone in short-yardage situations. That sleeper prospect could be Utah's Karl Williams, a 245-pounder with 4.5 speed, the fastest for any of the potential fullbacks in the 2014 draft pool. Likely to see more action on special teams, he was a walk-on his first three seasons before being awarded a scholarship the spring before his senior year.

A backup fullback in 2011 and 2012, Williams played in 36 games with five starts in three seasons after redshirting in 2010, as he averaged 4.0 yards per carry. As a senior, he rushed 15 times for 51 yards (3.4 ypc) and one touchdown, as he had nine receptions for 28 yards and two touchdowns. He also played on special teams and posted nine tackles.

Perhaps the one move to fullback that I am eagerly looking forward to is that from Wake Forest's outstanding yet undersized defensive tackle, Nikita Whitlock. The 5-foot-10, 252-pounder is a vastly underrated talent who had a sensational senior campaign attacking opponents' backfields, despite taking on offensive linemen that normally outweighed him by 50 to 80 pounds. He shows excellent footwork and a sudden burst out of his snap, but life for 250-pound nose guards in the NFL is not a daily occurrence.

Talent evaluators anticipate that Whitlock is subject to a position change in the NFL ranks. Teams utilizing a 3-4 defensive alignment might shift him to strong-side inside linebacker, where size and straight-line speed are crucial. Others might look at the success that teams like the Buccaneers, Giants and Broncos have had in recent years converting smaller defenders to the offensive backfield.

With his frame, strength and ability to widen rush lanes — a requirement at the fullback position — the Demon Deacon could be the "feel good story" in training camp with a potential move to that position. Still it is hard to overlook his defensive accomplishments in the trenches — fourth in school history with 18.5 quarterback sacks, second with 49.0 stops behind the line of scrimmage, along with causing five fumbles and registering 241 tackles in 47 games.

Another tremendous athlete who might find a home as a fullback is USC's tight end/defensive end/outside linebacker/special teams demon, Kevin Greene. At 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, he'll never be an NFL defensive lineman, but this heat-seeking missile on special teams possesses 4.4 speed and outstanding lateral agility. With his penchant for playing with a "search and destroy" attitude, he looks like the perfect piece to wear a New England Patriots uniform, where he could possibly take on the H-back role left vacant by Aaron Hernandez' incarceration.

Others to keep an eye on as potential late rounders are tight end/fullback Reggie Jordan of Missouri Western and Florida State's Chad Abrams. Some camp finds could emerge from the likes of Ray Agnew of Southern Illinois, Maurice Hagans of Miami, Kiero Small of Arkansas (a former defensive lineman during his junior college day), David Sims of Georgia Tech (an athlete in the Kevin Greene mold who also has quarterback experience), Ryan Eppes of South Florida, Chris Coyer of Temple, Damien Robinson of The Citadel, B.J. Butler of Louisville and Paul Carrezola of Rutgers.

MY PERSONAL LIST

CREAM OF THE CROP: Jay Prosch (Auburn)

BEST OF THE REST: J.C. Copeland (Louisiana State)

MOST UNDERRATED: Reggie Jordan (Missouri Western)

MOST OVERRATED: Chris Coyle (Arizona State)

SUPER SLEEPER: Nikita Whitlock (Wake Forest)

                                                                       
PLAYER HTWT 40225 VJBJ SH3C PRORND
PROSCH, Jay   6:01254 4.7227 3209'01" 4.47.33 5.74
WHITLOCK, Nikita   5:10251 4.8243 3309'00" 4.346.91 5.36
WILLIAMS, Karl   6:00244 4.5021 3509'11" 4.377.03 5.26
HEWITT, Ryan   6:04246 4.8720 3309'01" 4.357.04 5.17
COPELAND, J.C.   5:11271 4.9523 28 1/209'03" 4.587.68 5.17
%MILLARD, Trey   6:02247 4.6424 3009'00" 4.417.22 57
HOSKINS, Gator   6:02253 4.7322 36 1/209'08" 4.537.22 57
JORDAN, Reggie   6:03240 4.7724 3009'08" 4.37.22 57
GREENE, Kevin (TE-OLB) 6:03247 4.4021 30 1/209'03" 4.556.94 4.9PFA
ABRAM, Chad   5:11230 4.6520 3009'00" 4.557.33 4.97-FA
AGNEW, Ray   5:10247 4.7517 32 1/209'10" 4.267.11 4.8PFA
HAGENS, Maurice   5:11250 4.8323 2908"10" 4.227.28 4.8PFA
COYLE, Chris   6:03243 4.9516 30 1/209'00" 4.467.2 4.8PFA
SMALL, Kiero   5:08244 4.8923 2508'06" 4.557.25 4.7FA
SIMS, David  (QB) 5:11235 4.5923 3610'03" 4.47.13 4.7FA
LAGRONE, Michael   6:02263 4.6827 3009'04" 4.297.29 4.7FA
EPPES, Ryan   6:02232 4.6226 32 1/209'08" 4.327.16 4.7FA
BURTON, Trey (WR/TE)   6:02224 4.6219 3309'05" 4.317.01 4.6FA
COYER, Chris   6:02246 4.7924 3009'04" 4.537.43 4.6FA
ROBINSON, Damien 5:11222 4.6523 3209'09" 4.267.07 4.6FA
CARREZOLA, Paul   6:02240 4.8420 31 1/209'08" 4.477.31 4.6FA
BUTLER, B.J.   6:02283 4.9322 28 1/208'09" 4.857.86 4.6FA
ZIMMERER, C.J. 6:00235 4.824 3009"00" 4.447.33 4.6FA
STALEY, Kye   5:011248 5.0025 27 1/208'03" 4.587.38 4.5CMP
PASUT, Zico 6:02231 4.92        4.5CMP
ERJAVEC, Tim 6:01243 4.76        4.5CMP
JONES, Kadeem 5:10266 4.96        4.5CMP
YOUNG, Chad   5:09238 4.83        4.5CMP
PALMER, Dan   6:01235 4.86        4.4CMP
LAWSON, Roman   6:00246 4.91        4.4CMP
FENTON, Adam   6:02236 4.87        4.4CMP
NEIGHBORS, Conner   5:011239 4.92        4.4CMP
FREYTAG, Kurt   6:01235 5.06        4.4CMP
NEUKIRCH, Jordan   6:01235 4.82        4.3CMP
EDDINGTON, Jeremy 6:01250 4.82        4.3CMP
WOODY, Jeff 6:00244 4.79        4.3CMP


                   
RATING CATEGORYEXPLANATION
8.1-9.0Franchise
Player
Immediate starter...Should have a major impact to the success of the franchise, barring injury...Possesses superior critical factors...Plays with consistency and without abnormal extra effort...Rare talent.    
7.6-8.0Star Quality Eventual starter...Should make a significant contribution in his first year...Possesses above average critical factors...Has the talent and skills to start...Will contribute to upgrading the team...Can play without abnormal effort, but has some inconsistency in his play that will improve with refinement and development...Has no real weakness.
7.0-7.5Impact Player Possesses at least average to above average critical factors in all areas...Will contribute immediately, whether as a starter or a valuable reserve...Will move into the starting lineup with seasoning...Above average player who needs to refine certain areas.
6.5-6.9Eventual Starter Could move into the starting lineup within three years...Has average critical factors in all areas...Needs further development, but has the ability to contribute.
6.0-6.4Potential Starter Could force himself into the starting lineup with improved perform- ances...Will make a team...Has average critical factors in most areas, but at least one with less than average quality that he will have a hard time overcoming...Probable draft choice.
5.5-5.9Roster Player Has the ability to serve as a key reserve and possible future starter... Possesses average critical factors, but more than several areas are less than average...Plays with normal extra effort.
5.0-5.4Project Has the skills to play pro ball with proper tutoring...May make a team based on need...Possesses no real strong critical factors and is probably below average in several areas that the player will have a hard time overcoming...Possible draft choice, but only if that team is caught short on talent available at that position.
4.6-4.9Develop- mental Could make a team with an impressive showing in training camp... Not strong in most critical factors...Deficient in more than one area that he will not be able to overcome...At least average in the factor of competitiveness...May not make a team due to his limitations.
4.1-4.5Camp Player Has redeeming qualities that could allow him to play in the pros with improved performances...Deficient in more than one critical factor... Might make a team, but will always be the player that squad will look to replace.
3.5-4.0Reject Might make a team, but has glaring deficiencies in several critical factors...Below average competitor whose athletic skills will allow him to enter training camp, but has a difficult time in trying to make a team.

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