It’s been for some time that I’ve held the belief that NFL teams are foolish to use draft picks on fullbacks. That’s largely because it’s a dying position in the NFL and teams are better served to try to draft a player that has a much greater chance of adding value to the roster.
That doesn’t mean that fullbacks lack value, but there is little evidence that teams gain additional value by using a draft pick on the position as opposed to waiting until signing a player in undrafted free agency or off the street.
The Atlanta Falcons have been a good example of this in recent years, utilizing a fifth-round pick on Bradie Ewing in 2012. Ewing was drafted the year after the team was forced to play Mike Cox at the position following a season-ending injury to long-time lead blocker Ovie Mughelli in 2011. Cox performed ably, although he was a far cry from a fully healthy Mughelli. But the Falcons decided that they wanted to utilize a pick on Ewing the following spring, and it did not pay off for them.
Ewing missed his rookie season with an injury, and the team was forced to go with Cox for another year. He did a solid job, but the team decided to part ways with him again to give Ewing another shot. But Ewing had another injury-riddled season in 2013, and the team brought in Patrick DiMarco to replace him. Like Cox, DiMarco filled in ably for the Falcons.
Now the Falcons are potentially in the same position in 2014 to try and address their fullback position in the draft. With ten picks slated for the team in 2014, it would seem the odds are pretty good that one of them will be a lead blocker given that DiMarco is the only player on the roster.
So I’m writing this as a warning to the team. Don’t do it! Don’t draft a fullback!
There’s nothing wrong with adding a fullback to the team, but the Falcons will be better served waiting to add a couple of guys in undrafted free agency. Cox and DiMarco are prime examples of undrafted free agents that were able to make NFL rosters and be quasi-productive. Let’s not forget that the best of the bunch, Mughelli was an unrestricted free agent signing in 2007.
The Falcons are better served drafting another need position where a player has a much better chance of bringing a return on said investment.
To illustrate this point, I looked at fullbacks drafted and undrafted over the past five years. Utilizing premium website Pro Football Focus’ data on player snap counts, I wanted to research how much actual playing time do fullbacks that are drafted versus those that go undrafted actually get.
I only took into account snaps played for the team that drafted them. For example, fullback Anthony Sherman playing well for the Chiefs in 2013 does not benefit the Arizona Cardinals, who originally drafted him in 2011. It’s pretty silly to count a player’s production with another team as part of the original team’s record.
Since 2008, there have been 27 fullbacks drafted by NFL teams. There were other players such as tight ends and running backs that would occasionally receive snaps at fullback over that span, but if they spent the bulk of their playing time in the NFL playing another position, I discounted them from this study.
Taking in account the past six seasons, those 27 players averaged 339.4 snaps played over their entire careers. It should be noted that eight fullbacks in this past year played in 340 or more snaps. For the sake of comparison, Mughelli averaged 410.7 snaps per season from 2008-10. Meaning that most of the fullbacks drafted over the past six seasons didn’t play as many snaps in their entire careers as Mughelli did for the Falcons in a single season.
Only 12 of the 27 fullbacks drafted played more than 340 career snaps. The three players with most were San Francisco’s Bruce Miller (1,329 snaps), Tampa Bay’s Erik Lorig (1,181) and San Diego’s Jacob Hester (1,167). It’s worth noting that all three of those players were not primarily fullbacks in college. Miller and Lorig played defensive end and Hester spent the bulk of his career at LSU as a running back that would occasionally line up at fullback.
There were three other players among the dozen that had 340-plus snaps that also spent a significant portion of their collegiate careers not playing fullback. Spencer Larsen (565 snaps) played linebacker at UCLA before being selected by the Denver Broncos. Rhett Ellison (547 snaps) was a tight end at USC before the Minnesota Vikings drafted him. And Owen Marecic (371 snaps) started at middle linebacker along with playing fullback as a senior at Stanford before being a selection of the Cleveland Browns.
This is important to note, in that roughly half of the players that would be considered the “successful” fullbacks drafted over the past six years did not really play fullback in college. It really undermines the value of the position when teams can successfully convert defensive ends, linebackers and tight ends to the position and still expect above average production.
I also counted the number of seasons a player had in my research, even if that meant only playing a single snap at the position. Those players drafted from 2008-10, averaged just playing two seasons with the teams that drafted them. For those players drafted from 2008-12, it fell to 1.75.
Only 3 of the 27 drafted fullbacks managed to play a full four seasons with their teams: Hester, Larsen and Lorig. Hester finished his rookie contract with the Chargers and was scooped up by the Broncos in 2012 to replace Larsen, who signed on with the New England Patriots. Hester played one year with the Broncos and is currently out of football. Larsen missed the 2012 season with an injury but managed to catch on with the Buccaneers in 2013 as a backup to Lorig. Lorig just finished his rookie contract and signed with the New Orleans Saints.
This is worth noting because none of the fullbacks drafted over the past six years managed to earn a second contract with their respective teams when they hit free agency. Now that changed when Miller signed a contract extension with the 49ers back in March. Miller is the lone player drafted thus far that has managed to earn a second contract, and I want to stress again that he never played fullback until he arrived at 49ers mini-camp.
That could change if/when Kyle Juszcyk, a fourth-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2013, and Ellison potentially hit free agency in a couple of years. But that’s it. They are literally the only three eligible candidates because the other 24 drafted fullbacks have either already changed teams or are out of the league.
So over a six-year period, with 27 fullbacks drafted, the maximum number of fullbacks that will have played out the length of their rookie contracts will be six. That essentially means that 78 percent of the fullbacks drafted over that span ended in failure with their respective teams.
So if the Falcons draft a fullback this year, there’s a 78 percent that he won’t make to the end of his rookie contract. If that is not a deterrent to go in another direction, I don’t know what should be.
It’s also worth looking at the players that were undrafted since 2008. There were 36 fullbacks that went undrafted over that span that managed to play at least one snap in the NFL. Over half (19) of them managed to do so with the team that originally signed them. That’s a pretty good hit rate. It doesn’t mean that half the fullbacks that go undrafted wind up making their team, but it does mean that there’s a good chance that if you do happen to sign a fullback after the draft and he is good enough to make an NFL roster, he’ll bring some value to your specific team as opposed to another.
Those 19 players that made their original teams, averaged 119.7 snaps during their rookie seasons compared to the 27 drafted fullbacks, who average 107.1 snaps as rookies.
And of the 36 undrafted fullbacks that did manage to play in the NFL, they averaged 305.9 snaps over the course of their careers, about 34 less than a drafted player. Roughly a 10 percent difference, which is not significant.
Prominent among those players are: Marcel Reece (1,952 snaps), Jed Collins (1,275), Mike Cox (873), Darrel Young (852), Henry Hynoski (728), Will Johnson (539) and Mike Tolbert (534).
Reece was originally signed by the Miami Dolphins in 2008, but did not make their roster. He landed in Oakland the following year and has been a fixture ever since for the Raiders, as he’s considered alongside Miller to be one of the best fullbacks in the league. It’s worth noting that Reece played primarily wide receiver during his collegiate career at Washington.
Collins was originally signed by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2008, but bounced around the league before eventually sticking with the Saints in 2011. Collins spent the bulk of his college career playing tight end.
The remaining players did however play snaps with the teams that originally signed them: Cox (Kansas City Chiefs), Young (Washington Redskins), Hynoski (New York Giants), Johnson (Pittsburgh Steelers), and Tolbert (Chargers). Cox and Tolbert went on to earn second contracts in the NFL with other teams, the Falcons and Panthers, respectively.
Young was a college linebacker and like Reece, Johnson is a former college receiver.
The average number of seasons played by the undrafted fullbacks that were signed from 2008-10 was 1.9, almost the exact same as those drafted over that period. The same goes for those that were undrafted from 2008-12, as it was 1.74 average seasons played.
What these numbers illustrate is that if an undrafted player is good enough to make an NFL roster, his expected performance is about on par with a fullback that is drafted. That indicates the value of drafting a fullback is marginally better versus just signing a bunch of free agents and hoping that one is good enough to emerge and stick on your roster.
Now it’s hard to get context in a vacuum with those numbers, so I decided to also look at another position over that same span. I chose the running back position, because it’s a position that is also being devalued in recent drafts, and since the two positions are complementary, one might assume that the numbers could be similar.
Well, it’s not.
Since 2008, 119 running backs were selected in the draft. Over the course of their careers, they played an average of 676.3 snaps in their careers. The highest number of snaps that Michael Turner played in a single season in Atlanta was the 629 he received in 2008. Jacquizz Rodgers played 789 snaps in his first two seasons in Atlanta to add further context.
Those 119 running backs averaged 186.7 snaps in their rookie seasons. Those drafted over 2008-10 averaged 3.1 seasons played in the league, and those drafted over 2008-12 averaged 2.6.
In comparison, 54 undrafted running backs managed to play a snap over the past six years. Those players averaged just 172.3 snaps over the course of their careers and 57.5 snaps in their rookie seasons representing roughly a quarter and a third, respectively, of snaps played by running backs drafted. Those undrafted over 2008-10 played 1.9 seasons and those undrafted over 2008-12 averaged 1.7 seasons, around 60-65 percent of their drafted counterparts.
Unlike the fullback position, there is a relatively wide disparity between running backs that are drafted and those undrafted when considering the expectations for their careers in the NFL.
And it’s really Arian Foster that is padding the totals for the undrafted group. Foster has played 2,816 snaps since originally being an undrafted free agent of the Houston Texans in 2009. That’s the sixth-most of any running back drafted or undrafted since 2008. The next four undrafted running backs with the highest snap counts: LeGarrette Blount, Isaac Redman, Keiland Williams and Kahlil Bell combine for 2,692, unable to eclipse Foster. Without Foster’s snap count to boost the number, the average number of career snaps for an undrafted running back falls to 122.4 snaps. So unless you find the next Foster, your average drafted running back is going to receive over five times as many reps as your average undrafted back.
Now the interesting thing about running backs is that just like fullbacks, few are earning second contracts with teams.
Just 10 have done so thus far, but 25 did manage to finish out their rookie deals before finding work with other NFL teams. There are 47 drafted fullbacks currently in the midst of their rookie deals. As opposed to fullback, the “rate of failure” for a drafted running back is about half (39 percent). There’s a 60 percent chance that if you use a draft pick on a running back, he’ll play out the full extent of his rookie contract.
It’s likely that given the fact that teams carry multiple running backs as opposed to just one or two fullbacks, the reason why so few running backs get a second contract with their respective teams is because they are drafted new blood every few years, as opposed to guys not being deserving of deals.
The longevity of a running back is much shorter than that of a fullback. The Falcons recently worked out free agent Greg Jones, who turns 33 next month. Jones had the ninth highest run-blocking grade on Pro Football Focus’ metrics last season at age 32. Mughelli was 31 during his final season in Atlanta. Most running backs’ careers are over when they reach 30, let alone 32 and thus it makes sense that there is constant turnover at the position with draft picks. However, fullbacks have shown they can go strong well beyond age 30. Three-time Pro Bowl Tony Richardson retired after his final season in 2010 at the age of 39.
In the end, the numbers show that your average undrafted fullback is going to perform just as well as your average drafted fullback. That is not the same for the running back position, and I’m sure is not the case for most other positions on the field.
If teams want to add a fullback, recent history suggests you might be better off taking a college defensive end, linebacker or player at another position and converting him to fullback, since there is a strong precedent for success. Or given the relative longevity of the position, do what teams like the Falcons and others have done which is to sign players in unrestricted free agency.
Essentially the data shows that fullback can be considered a “plug and play” position. Meaning that teams can essentially plug any number of options at the position and expect to get decent production from the position. But one of those options should not be drafting a fullback.