WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Austin Johnson jokes that he’s the last of a dying breed. He’s looked at rosters, heard the talk. He knows that maybe, if he were coming into the league a decade from now, that his job options as a traditional fullback would be even more limited.
In many cities, the game has evolved to a point where there isn’t a need or it isn’t economical to expend a roster spot on someone whose chief — sometimes only — responsibility is to blast open holes for a running back. The math of a 53-man roster often makes more sense when a player from a different position can moonlight in that role.
But those who are still part of this shrinking fraternity of fullbacks aren’t ready to admit defeat. They believe there’s still a place for them and that they brings skills that should be more valued by NFL teams.
“Both Super Bowl teams carried a fullback, and they used it,” Johnson said. “It’s obviously still something that’s important in the game. It’s the position I play. You just got to roll with (that talk).”
The Saints are one of those teams, like the Patriots with James Develin and Seattle with Will Tukuafu, that still value the position. There aren’t many others. According to Pro Football Focus, only 43 players logged snaps at the position last season. Of those, only 15 players played more than 200 snaps.
The view was more favorable for fullbacks a few years ago. In 2007, of the 68 players who played fullback, 14 logged 400 or more snaps. Only three players — San Francisco’s Bruce Miller, Baltimore’s Kyle Juszczyk, and Cincinnati’s Ryan Hewitt — reached 400 snaps last season.
The reason the teams are moving away from fullbacks isn’t necessarily because the position has been devalued or that the game has evolved to a point where the position is no longer viewed as necessary. It’s happened, at least in part, because colleges are no longer developing the same number of players at the position.
The rise of air-raid and spread offenses means fullbacks are becoming extinct at the college level, and it has also led to decline in the development of traditional, in-line, tight ends.
“At some point, you get what they give you,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “There are less and less teams in college using a fullback, and yet there are a handful that do.”
The Saints have no shortage of fullbacks. They’ll enter Thursday night’s preseason opener in Baltimore against the Ravens with Johnson and Erik Lorig continuing their fight for a roster spot, and with Toben Oporum also working to get his name in the mix. All three are traditional fullbacks.
But a lot of teams are now using tight ends to handle some of the responsibilities traditionally filled by fullbacks. When the Saints scout a tight end coming out of college, one of the things they’ll do is evaluate if he has the ability to play fullback as well as his natural position. The transition can sometimes be seamless, because many of the skills translate. Such a move worked out for the Saints in 2009 when tight end David Thomas filled in at fullback after Heath Evans went down with an injury six games into the season.
“Generally, the fullback who has been just a fullback isn’t someone that can go to (in-line tight end) because of his stature,” Payton said. “So having that versatility, I think, is important — especially for the tight ends.”
Those issues don’t apply to the Saints this year. Lorig or Johnson will clear lanes for the running backs this season. In his stint last year, Johnson proved he was a strong blocker while filling in for an injured Lorig before being placed on injured reserve in November with a knee injury.
Lorig is also a capable run blocker and has the proven ability to catch passes out of the backfield. The second part of that evaluation might matter most. Ironically, Jonhson’s and Lorig’s ability to catch the ball could be what decides the battle, which is why Johnson has made it a point of emphasis to improve as a receiver.
“I want to make sure all my blocks are always well executed, and also my pass protection,” said Johnson, who has two career receptions. “As a fullback, you don’t get ball too much, so when you do, you have to make the most of those opportunities.”
There are at least a few guys on every roster who don’t care at all about how well the fullbacks catch the ball and don’t ever want to see the position go to the wayside. They’re the guys running behind their blocks.
“When you start getting into those November and December games, and the playoff games, it’s not a finesse game,” Saints running back Tim Hightower said. “You’re going to have to be physical, you’re going to have to control the clock, you’re going to have to run the ball.”
For guys like Johnson and Lorig, they’re hoping that brand of football continues to be appreciated not just in those months, but all months. Whoever ends up on the outside at the end of the battle is going to have to find another team that appreciates a good, old-fashioned fullback.