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
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