Football positions are confusing. They adopt a lot of the same position names as rugby, but a lot of the American football equivalents don’t make a lot of sense.
One such example is the fullback, which causes widespread confusion regarding what they do on the football field.
So, what is a fullback in football?
Fullbacks are offensive football players that are primarily used as blockers. They’re also used in the passing and running game, but primarily when teams want to surprise or confuse their opponents. Fullbacks also make quality additions to a special teams unit because they’re tough and athletic.
Many people forget about the fullback position, especially since teams rarely use them during a football game. Many teams don’t even have a fullback on their roster. Despite their lack of attention, they still play a major role on any football team when properly utilized.
In this article, we’re going to detail everything you need to know about the fullback position — including the history, how they differ from a halfback, their roles and responsibilities, their strengths, and some of the best fullbacks to ever play.
History of the Fullback Position in Football
In rugby, the fullback lines up behind the backline and is the furthest player back for each team — hence the name full-back. They not only act as the last line of defense but also catch high balls and launch the attack. They’re a group of versatile rugby players that play an important role.
When you think of an offensive formation in football, the fullback lines up behind the line of scrimmage, but they aren’t the furthest ones back. They almost always line up in-between the quarterback and halfback.
If that’s the case, why are they called the fullback?
This is where things start getting a little confusing. While the fullback isn’t the furthest player back in offensive formations today, that wasn’t always the case.
Before the I and T-formations that we see today, many teams had four offensive backs — a quarterback, two halfbacks, and a fullback.
The quarterback lined up where they normally do, the two halfbacks lined up side-by-side behind the quarterback, and the fullback would line up behind the two halfbacks.
The emergence of the T-formation saw the fullback sandwiched in-between the two halfbacks behind the quarterback. Over time, the fullback position started evolving into bigger, stronger, and tougher players.
This is when football coaches start to favor them as blockers in the I-formation.
It made more sense to bring the fullback in front of the halfback, especially since they generally block linebackers for the halfback. Despite the position changing so much throughout history, the name remained the same.
Fullback vs Halfback
Many people confuse a traditional fullback with a halfback, especially since they often line up in similar positions on the field — and often at the same time. While they’re both technically considered running backs and used in the running game, there are a variety of differences between the two.
Typically fullbacks specialize in blocking and are usually bigger, tougher, and stronger than a typical halfback. Although they block linebackers most of the time, they’re also used in running plays and catch the ball when the play calls for it.
Fullbacks don’t go by any other names but are usually abbreviated to ‘FB’ for short.
Halfbacks, on the other hand, go by several names. Many people call them running backs by default, but that could get confusing since fullbacks are also considered running backs.
Halfbacks are also called tailbacks in some formations. They’re primarily asked to run the ball, but also block and catch the ball. While they do a lot of the same things, they don’t share the same specialties. That’s why many teams elect to carry a fullback on their roster.
Other teams sign a big halfback that’s a skilled blocker, that way they don’t completely abort the idea of a fullback. Tight ends also fill in for fullbacks in modern football.
What Do Fullbacks Do in Football?
Fullbacks aren’t as popular as they once were, but they still serve a purpose in the NFL. They’re often quality locker room players that add to the culture of any team, but they also bring a lot of skill and talent to the team. No coach should ever take these players for granted.
While a fullback’s job (mainly) is blocking for the halfback or quarterback, they’re asked to do so much more when on the field — including rushing, receiving, and special teams.
Let’s take a closer look at a fullback’s job:
Fullbacks have a disadvantage when blocking for the halfback and quarterback because the defenders are usually larger than them. First, they need to identify their assignment and communicate with the rest of the offensive line.
Then, they need to disrupt their assignment and prevent them from moving toward the QB or HB.
Since fullbacks are primarily used for blocking, teams don’t expect them to get the ball for running plays. This is an opportunity to surprise your opponent and gain a few yards in the process.
Fullbacks also come in handy in short-yardage situations or when going for a first down. Since they’re bigger than the typical halfback, they’re great for getting a couple of yards on running plays in short-yardage situations.
In addition to rushing the ball, fullbacks occasionally run routes for the quarterback. A majority of these routes come after a brief blocking assignment.
They start the route once they confirm their assignment is neutralized. A fullback that can block, run, and catch passes has a higher chance of seeing offensive snaps.
Fullback Special Teams
To round out a fullback’s versatility, they might see some time on the special teams unit. This is the group of players on the field during kickoffs, returns, field goals, punts, and extra points.
The days of a one-trick fullback are long gone. If you can’t satisfy all four stages of being a fullback, you’ll have a difficult time making it in the NFL. Even college teams shy away from adding a true fullback to their rosters, so versatility and skill are often the keys to success.
What Makes a Good Fullback in Football?
Fullbacks are a rare breed in the game of football, but they only see playing time if they’re extremely skilled at their position. Head Coaches and General Managers won’t hand out a roster spot to anyone, meaning they must earn their spot on the team.
As you can likely imagine, that’s not an easy task. We know quality fullbacks are versatile and we know the different roles they’re responsible for.
Now, let’s take a look at the different skills, traits, and qualities needed to find success as a fullback:
Toughness and Grit
The fullback position isn’t for the light-hearted. Not only do defenders get a running head start before colliding with the fullback, but those defenders are generally big linebackers.
Fullbacks need to be mentally prepared for this contact.
Vision and IQ
Having a strong vision and a high football IQ are important when picking up or blocking incoming defenders. Fullbacks must read the defense and predict what they’re going to do.
Protecting the quarterback and halfback is much easier when you can see what’s happening in front of you before it happens.
Size and Strength
Mental strength is essential for toughness and grit, but fullbacks also need physical strength to succeed at the position. Most fullbacks are around 6’ tall and weigh around 240lbs. Upper arm strength, lower body strength, and core strength are all important.
Quarterbacks only throw the ball to players they trust. One of the things that makes a receiver trustworthy is having soft hands, which means they rarely drop the ball. Adding this element to a fullback’s arsenal makes them that much more dangerous on pass plays in a football game.
Much like soft hands prevent you from dropping a pass, fullbacks also need to practice ball security when they’re used in the running game. Coaches can’t stand when a player fumbles the ball and it’ll certainly put a fullback on thin ice in the locker room.
In addition to soft hands, fullbacks that run clean routes are bound to receive a lot of attention from the quarterback. They’re always where they need to be, they create separation from defenders, and you know they aren’t going to drop the ball.
Not only do fullbacks need to hold on to the ball and prevent fumbling, but they need to know how to run with the ball. This includes vision, agility, and knowing how to break a tackle.
Since fullbacks are bigger than halfbacks, it’s important they know how to use their size to get through and past the defense.
Fullbacks are generally cast as the quiet type, especially since we don’t see them on the field often. Despite that, they usually play a large role in the locker room and are often leaders among their teammates.
This also proves itself on the sidelines during a football game, where fullbacks are usually motivating their teammates on every play. Any talented player that adds to the culture of a team is going to find themselves a long-term contract.
Fullbacks are no different. Prove yourself worthy on the field, prove yourself worthy in the locker room, and you’ll have a quality career as a fullback.
Do Teams Still Use Fullbacks?
Although we don’t see them often, there are a wide variety of teams that still use a true fullback. Many of them see regular playing time, even if it’s mostly on special teams or in a blocking role.
With that said, they’re highly situational and often double as a tight end.
During the 2020-21 season, there were 20 NFL teams with at least one fullback on their roster — the New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans were the only NFL teams with two signed fullbacks.
The 49ers, Vikings, Steelers, Ravens, Browns, Cowboys, Falcons, Jets, Texans, Lions, Panthers, Bills, Giants, Broncos, Raiders, Packers, Chiefs, and Saints all had one.
Of the 22 fullbacks that were on an NFL roster, only four of them had a one-year deal that ended after the season. Six of them were signed to a four-year contract and six of them were signed to a three-year contract.
The most illustrious contract is Kyle Juszczyk’s contract, totaling $21 million over four years.
Kyle Juszczyk was the only fullback to finish with more than 20 yards rushing during the 2020-21 season. He finished with 64 rushing yards and 2 rushing touchdowns. He contributed more through the passing game, recording 19 catches for 202 yards and four touchdowns.
Alec Ingold was the only other fullback to achieve more than 100 yards receiving, recording 12 catches for 110 yards and one touchdown. No fullback in the NFL attempted a pass during the 2020-21 season, but they did a lot of blocking.
Most NFL teams without a traditional fullback elect to roll with a larger running back or a more versatile tight end (a tight end that can run the ball).
Fullbacks in the Hall of Fame
Over the years, the NFL has seen a variety of Hall of Fame fullbacks step foot on the field. Most of them were multi-purpose players that played several other positions.
The most recent fullbacks inducted into the Hall of Fame were Larry Csonka and John Henry Johnson on Aug. 8, 1987.
In total, there are nine fullbacks in the NFL’s Hall of Fame. Let’s take a closer look at each one and why they were inducted into the Hall of Fame:
- Clarke Hinkle – Played for the Green Bay Packers as a fullback, linebacker, halfback, and defensive back from 1932-1941. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1964.
- Bronko Nagurski – Played for the Chicago Bears as a fullback, linebacker, and tackle from 1930-1943. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1963.
- Ernie Nevers – Played for the Duluth Eskimos and Chicago Cardinals as a fullback from 1926-1931. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1963.
- Jim Brown – Played for the Cleveland Browns as a fullback from 1957-1965. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971.
- Larry Csonka – Played for the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins as a fullback from 1968-1979. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.
- John Henry Johnson – Played for the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Houston Oilers as a fullback and halfback from 1954-1966. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.
- Marion Motley – Played for the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers as a fullback and linebacker from 1946-1955. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1968.
- Joe Perry – Played for the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts as a fullback from 1948-1963. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1969.
- Jim Taylor – Played for the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints as a fullback, from 1958-1967. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976.
The fullbacks listed above defied the position as we know it today. We haven’t seen a lot of players do what they were able to do on a weekly basis. They’ll forever go down as some of the greats at the position and prove that fullbacks can have illustrious careers in the NFL.
Notable NFL Fullbacks
As many football fans know, getting inducted into the Hall of Fame is a major accomplishment in anyone’s NFL career. It’s incredibly difficult to achieve and doesn’t happen often — with only 4-8 retired players enshrined every year.
That’s what makes the 10 players listed above some of the greatest fullbacks to ever play. At the same time, there are a lot of well-known and highly-important fullbacks that haven’t been inducted into the Hall of Fame — at least not yet.
Let’s highlight some of those fullbacks as well since they did a lot to evolve the football fullback position we know today:
- Mike Alstott – played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a fullback from 1996-2006. Had 5,088 rushing yards, 2,284 receiving yards, and 71 total touchdowns.
- John Riggins – played for the New York Jets and Washington Football Team as a fullback and halfback from 1971-1985. Had 11,352 rushing yards, 2,090 receiving yards, and 116 total touchdowns.
- Franco Harris – played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks as a fullback and halfback from 1972-1984. Had 12,120 rushing yards, 2,287 receiving yards, and 100 total touchdowns.
- Tony Richardson – played for the Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings, and New York Jets as a fullback and halfback from 1995-2010. Had 1,727 rushing yards, 1,543 receiving yards, and 24 total touchdowns.
- Lorenzo Neal – played for the Saints, Jets, Buccaneers, Titans, Bengals, Chargers, and Ravens as a fullback from 1993-2008. Had 807 rushing yards, 1,086 receiving yards, and 18 total touchdowns.
- Larry Centers – played for the Cardinals, Redskins, Bills, and Patriots as a fullback and halfback from 1990-2003. Had 2,188 rushing yards, 6,797 receiving yards, and 42 total touchdowns.