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A Running Back's Best Friend
by Jake Richmond
August 11, 2003
 

Since running backs are generally the most coveted players in any fantasy football draft, even the most inexperienced owners put ample thought into their rankings of that position. Among the common factors in evaluation are age, injury history, opportunity, ease of schedule, and the effectiveness of the passing game to keep defenses from crowding the line of scrimmage. The slightly more savvy drafters also know which backs are running behind a talented group of offensive linemen. There’s one part of the running game, however, that seems to be often overlooked -- the fullback.

No, not the short-yardage, bruising fullbacks in the mold of Mike Alstott and Zack Crockett or the prolific pass-catchers like Larry Centers and Richie Anderson. A few of these guys might make some fantasy rosters before the season starts, but they’re not the players who deserve your foremost consideration. The fullbacks who mean more to the fantasy world are the lead blockers.

The life of a blocking fullback is not a glamorous one as they often go seasons at a time without a TD run or a long reception. Many change squads almost every couple of years. However, the most dedicated lead blockers realize what they do for their team’s leading rushers – and so should you. They regularly take on linebackers and safeties, sometimes making the difference between a two-yard loss and a twenty-yard touchdown.

Lots of NFL teams changed the scenery in the backfield this offseason. Some offensive coordinators decided they need a sure-handed fullback to complement the short passing game at the expense of the rushing stats. Other coaches wanted more production from their primary ball carrier and consequently signed a hard-nosed blocking fullback.

Hmm…“more production from the primary ball carrier” is music to many a fantasy owner’s ear. Let’s get right to the point. Some running backs can look forward to better blocking in front of them this year, while others might be frowning at the loss of their best friend on the field. Here’s the list of both, in order of significance.

Top 5 “Winners”

1. Travis Henry, Buffalo Bills

Larry Centers is the all-time NFL leader in receptions among running backs. Why did the Bills cut him this year? Well, he’s never had much skill in blocking and coordinator Tom Donahoe wants to shift the offense more toward the power running game. Buffalo reacquired Sam Gash, a former Raven who didn’t have a catch or carry last season, but helped Jamal Lewis return to his pre-injury form. Gash is 34 years old, which means he’s got as much blocking experience as anyone at his position. His presence, plus the absence of Centers, means bigger holes and more catches for Travis Henry.

2. LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers

Most NFL fans know the name Lorenzo Neal even though he only touches the football an average of 16 times a season. That’s how good he is at blocking. While his move to San Diego common knowledge among fantasy owners, it definitely deserves mention here. For the last four years, San Diego had a decent blocking fullback in Fred McCrary, but he doesn’t compare to Neal, who’s considered the best lead blocker in the league by almost every scout around the NFL. With a significant upgrade in blocking coupled with the addition of David Boston, Tomlinson might have to evade one fewer defender on nearly every play.

3. Emmitt Smith/Marcel Shipp, Arizona Cardinals

Sure, there are plenty of reasons not to spend an early-round pick on a Cardinals running back, but they might deserve a small hike in your rankings due to the new presence of James Hodgins. Arizona nabbed him from St. Louis, where he helped a guy named Marshall Faulk score 45 rushing touchdowns over the past 4 years. Hodgins, at 6’ 1” and 274 pounds, is excellent at sustaining his blocks and is a huge upgrade from Joel Makovica, the Cardinals’ 2002 starter.

4. Charlie Garner, Oakland Raiders

Although Oakland ran plenty of single-back, multiple-wide receiver formations in 2002, they showed some interest in improving their running lanes this year by signing former Eagle Cecil Martin. A very good, well-balanced fullback, Martin is a more polished lead blocker than Jon Ritchie, who coincidentally left the Raiders and went to Philadelphia.

5. Antowain Smith/Kevin Faulk, New England Patriots

The Patriots released their receiving fullback Marc Edwards this offseason, only to replace him with Larry Centers. The important move, however, was the acquisition of Fred McCrary from San Diego, who fills the blocking role the Patriots haven’t had in recent years. When Tom Brady isn’t dumping the ball off to Centers, the New England rushers should get more help from McCrary.

Honorable Mention: Deuce McAllister, New Orleans Saints

Although there hasn’t been any changes at fullback this offseason, word from Saints camp is that lead blocker Terrelle Smith is looking better than ever. Offensive Coordinator Mike McCarthy says that Smith now “has total understanding, total command of the offense. He knows what's asked of him and he does it at a very high energy level." About his role this year, Smith himself says, “I'm going to be the angriest man on the field this fall. Nobody better get in my way.” Deuce should be happy to hear it.

Top 5 “Losers”

1. Corey Dillon, Cincinnati Bengals

It seems to follow that the running back who lost the league’s best lead blocker would top this list. With the departure of Lorenzo Neal and Nick Luchey, the Bengals lost an integral part of their running game and, more specifically, their goal-line formation. Also, they failed miserably to replace Neal. Chris Edmonds, who’s been a backup linebacker and tight end throughout his two-year career, is now on Cincinnati’s depth chart as the starting fullback. Dillon better hope Edmonds is a quick learner.

2. Marshall Faulk, St. Louis Rams

The Rams are another team who lost a standout blocker (Hodgins) and didn’t fill the void properly. They brought in Leon Johnson from the Bears, but he’s more of a runner himself and will present a significant downgrade at the point of attack when Faulk has the ball. Add the contract issues with tackle Orlando Pace and two new starters on the offensive line and there could be trouble with the running game in St. Louis.

3. Warrick Dunn/T.J Duckett, Atlanta Falcons

Bob Christian did a pretty good job blocking last year and he had good chemistry with the offensive players. His retirement leaves the Falcons with unestablished 24-year-old George Layne, a backup who came from Kansas City last year. Atlanta also let Reggie Kelly, their blocking tight end, depart for Cincinnati. Word from camp indicates that Dunn, Duckett, and TE Alge Crumpler will be on the field more often this year in many of the formations run by Pete Mangurian.

4. Duce Staley/Correll Buckhalter, Philadelphia Eagles

As mentioned before, the Eagles lost Cecil Martin to the Raiders and ended up with former Oakland fullback Jon Ritchie. Ritchie should deliver some decent lead blocks for whoever ends up carrying the ball for Philly, but he won’t perform at Martin’s level.

5. Jamal Lewis, Baltimore Ravens

The playing time and effectiveness of 2003 fourth-round draft choice Ovie Mughelli will determine whether Lewis and the Ravens belong on this list at all. They did lose a premier blocker when they let Sam Gash go to Buffalo, but Mughelli was considered by some scouts to be the best blocking fullback to enter the draft in recent years. If he cements his spot in the starting lineup, the running game shouldn’t suffer too much. If not, Lewis’s numbers could take a hit.

Honorable Mention: Tiki Barber, New York Giants

The Giants no longer employ Sean Bennett, who was their starting fullback last year. Bennett wasn’t a special blocker, but with the additional loss of blocking tight end Dan Campbell, Barber himself has expressed some lament for the expected narrowing of running lanes this year.

Remember to keep your eye on a few preseason games and your ear tuned to training camp reports in order to determine how the running backs mentioned above are acclimating to their new situations. Adjust your rankings accordingly and you should have one more edge on your opponents in this year’s battle for the best fantasy backfield.