The eulogy of the fullback has been written before. In today’s NFL, where passing is king, the position has long felt like a relic of a bygone, ground-and-pound era. For years, its extinction has seemed inevitable.
A decade ago, when blue-collar battering rams such as Mike Alstott and Lorenzo Neal still ruled NFL backfields, the position thrived. The league was flooded with dominant running games. NFL teams still utilized a fullback on 40 percent of their offensive plays.
But the fullback has been slowly fading into obscurity ever since. Last season, the use of two-back sets fell to just 11 percent. Fullbacks, reduced to more specialized roles, were paid accordingly: Only six made $1 million or more in 2016, while nine teams paid their long snappers at least that much.
Then, in early March, the funeral march of the fullback took a sharp left turn. After ignoring the position entirely under Chip Kelly, the 49ers’ new regime handed out the largest contract a fullback had ever been offered. After a reported bidding war between multiple teams, Kyle Juszczyk signed for a staggering $10.5 million guaranteed over four years in San Francisco — more than double that of the second-highest paid at his position. Next season, Juszczyk will make more than running backs Adrian Peterson, Todd Gurley, and Eddie Lacy, playing a position that seven NFL teams don’t even have represented on their pre-OTA rosters.
“Fullbacks aren’t dead yet,” Juszczyk, a three-time Pro Bowler, declared at his first news conference.
But as the game evolves and the need for bruising lead blockers subsides, San Francisco’s signing raises the question: Is there really a future for fullbacks in the NFL?
Seven weeks after Juszczyk’s record deal, Sam Rogers sat on a couch in his family’s home in Virginia, watching intently as sixth-round picks rolled across the ESPN’s NFL draft ticker. The former Virginia Tech walk-on was told he’d be selected in the late rounds. But with so many cheap free agents available and so few teams actively searching for a fullback, Rogers knew better than to count on such a promise.
Midway through the round, the phone rang. It was the Rams.
At first glance, it seemed an odd fit. The Rams operated out of 21 and 22 personnel just four total plays last season. (Ironically, only the 49ers used fewer two-back sets.) Like other NFL teams, the Rams often used a tight end — in most cases, Cory Harkey — as a stand-in fullback when necessary.
But in Rogers, the Rams saw a spark for a revamped offense that needed all the electricity it could muster. As new coach Sean McVay and GM Les Snead reviewed possible fits at the position, McVay found himself standing and pumping his fist at the sight of the Virginia Tech fullback bursting down the sideline on a wheel route. He designed a play for Rogers on the spot.
“We needed energy,” Snead said after the draft, “and Sean was jacked about watching Sam Rogers.”
It was never Rogers’ intention to…