Fullbacks are becoming a bit of a rarity in the National Football League.
Week 1 of last season saw only 19 teams carry at least one fullback on their roster and 25 teams are carrying at least one at this point in the current season. There's no guarantee that will the same after cuts are made, however.
While fullbacks still have a role to play, gone are the days of Lorenzo Neal and Mike Alstott or at least that seems to be the trend in the modern NFL.
Don't tell the Green Bay Packers that.
The Packers currently have two fullbacks on the roster, returning veteran Aaron Ripkowski and Joe Kerridge who the team signed mid-season last year thanks to injuries in the running game.
Green Bay's fullbacks are not just on the team as extra blockers either. Ripkowski had three touchdowns last season (two rushing, one receiving) and averaged 4.4 yards per carry on 2.1 rushing attempts per game.
This isn't a new trend for the Packers as John Kuhn, Ripkowski's predecessor, averaged 1.4 attempts per game as a Packer and scored an average of 2.5 touchdowns per season during his nine-year career in Green Bay.
While fullbacks are still on the majority of NFL rosters, not many get featured roles like they do in Green Bay. Head coach Mike McCarthy clearly loves using a traditional fullback in two-back sets versus using an H-back, which is usually a tight lined up behind the line of scrimmage.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is also a fan of the fullback position and heaped praise upon both Ripkowksi and Kerridge. "I still think (Ripkowski) is going to be in the mix when it comes to running the football. He showed a lot last year late in the season, running the football really well, and did some great things for us in the playoffs. He’s very reliable back there," Rodgers said.
As for Kerridge, "I think Joe has had a fantastic camp,” Rodgers said. “So we have the luxury we haven’t had since John (Kuhn) left, with two really solid fullbacks. I think they’re both having great camps.”
Could the Packers keep both fullbacks on the roster? Recent history says yes as the team went into the 2015 season with Kuhn and Ripkowski, who was a rookie that season, on the active roster.
That being said, there are signs the winds of change are in the air.
The Packers added two strong blocking tight ends in free agency this year with Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks. This means Green Bay will likely be using more 12 personnel packages (one running back and two tight ends) than in years past. When you consider the team's starting running back is a converted wide receiver, you can begin to see the matchup nightmares they could create without having a fullback on the field.
While a fullback has had a traditional role in McCarthy's offense, the emergence of Ty Montgomery and his unique skill set plus the addition of two versatile tight ends makes you wonder if it's possible Green Bay is joining in the evolution that's leading to the extinction of the fullback or if they're just adding another wrinkle to offense.
The team will very likely have at least one fullback on the roster going into Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks. To not have one would signal a significant shift in McCarthy's offensive philosophy and that's just not something the coach would do so suddenly.
Not to mention Ripkowski proved his worth last year, especially in goal line packages later in the season. He's also a solid pass blocker (an area Montgomery needs work in) and plays well on special teams. That's versatility the Packers treasure.
Still, you can't help but wonder if the Packers are in the process of falling in line with the direction a lot of teams are heading in. For example, a lot of Ripkowski's big gains last year came from when he was the only back in the backfield, usually lined up in the shotgun next to Rodgers.
The role of the fullback in the Packers offense this season will be interesting to watch. The signing of two tight ends with blocking abilities signals a shift in the Packers' offense, but Ripkowski played well enough in 2016 to keep around and Kerridge has shown enough in camp to make this a tough decision at cutdown time.
The role of the fullback in Green Bay isn’t endangered just yet, but the ever changing NFL ecosystem might thrust them into survival mode sooner than later.