Fullbacks are weird people. When you choose to be a fullback (or are otherwise committed to be one by a high school or college coach) you’ve chosen to run full speed directly into other people who are likely larger than you on virtually every play. As the league has leaned more heavily on passing over the last few decades, fullbacks have gone out of style, at least until recently. With the uptick in heavier offenses, fullbacks are starting to crack rosters again, and in at least one instance, a team’s fullback is on the shot list for a team’s most valuable player.
Part of the problem with the fullback’s reputation is its old school connotation. Packer fans will immediately think of John Kuhn and his many one-yard carries. Kuhn was a pretty standard (and pretty good) old school fullback, a fine lead blocker, very good in pass protection, and a competent dump-off option. The thing is, that’s not all that a fullback has to be. It can be so much more.
Whichever San Francisco scout and front office member decided to target Kyle Juszczyk in free agency when his time ran out in Baltimore deserves some kind of award. Committing actual dollars to a guy who didn’t blow up a stat sheet, plays an antiquated position, and was let go by an otherwise brilliant organization had to be a tough sell, but Juszczyk is worth every penny. Mainstream football people, contrary to those in front offices, have never met a big white Ivy-league fullback they don’t like, so let’s take a moment to actually quantify his value rather than relying on annoying old tropes:
When you think of a good receiving back you probably think of guys like Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler, or Davlin Cook. While they’re all fine, according to DVOA, they were behind a few bigger backs in Mark Ingram of the Ravens, who finished first, and Juszczyk, who finished second. Juszczyk had easily his best year as a receiver last season, catching 83% of his passes for 12 yards per reception. Since 2011 there are only 11 players to catch over 80% of their targets for over 12 yards per reception (including Randall Cobb in 2011 and Jermichael Finley in an abbreviated 2010), and while Juszczyk isn’t targeted a ton, the fact that he catches basically everything with such efficiency still makes him dangerous. He was also no slouch in 2018 where he finished 8th, just behind Alvin Kamara.
2. Personnel Efficiency
The 49ers were most efficient when Juszczyk was on the field, and it wasn’t close. Their DVOA in 11 personnel was 17.1% which is pretty good, but in 21 personnel (two running backs and one tight end) they jumped all the way to 24.3%. In the small number of plays where they went extra heavy in 22 personnel (8% of their plays), they scored a DVOA of 44.7%. (Source: Football Outsiders Almanac 2020)
If you doubt that Juszczyk was the straw that stirred the drink, note that he actually missed weeks 5-9 with an injury. During his absence the 49ers attempted to replace him with an extra tight end, but it just didn’t work. Their DVOA in 12 personnel was a catastrophic -30.3%. Juszczyk was the key to their efficiency and without him, their heavy offense cratered.
Josiah DeGuara, John Lovett
To succeed like Juszczyk, you need a player equally adept at receiving and blocking in the power run game. Old school fullbacks tended to be receivers as an afterthought, but that won’t cut it. That said, it’s also not enough just to stick a poor blocker back there. Your modern fullback needs to be adept as a power lead blocker and a true tight end, able to chip and hold off edge players, excel in blitz pickup, and lay the wood in the hole. These guys don’t grow on trees and it’s worth noting that Juszcyk is a rare athlete at the position, especially at his size.
With pick 130 in the 2013 NFL Draft, the #Ravens selected Kyle Juszczyk, FB, Harvard.— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) December 29, 2019
He posted an elite #RAS with good size, good speed, elite explosiveness, great agility at the FB position.#ProBowl pic.twitter.com/hv9VVeFsdM
The Packers spent a pretty high pick on Josiah Deguara out of Cincinnati for this very role, and he fits the bill as a dangerous receiver from the tight end/h-back spot. Much digital ink has been spilled on whether Deguara is a true tight end or not, as some (including me) have balked at spending a high pick on a “specialty player.” His RAS suggests he’s more suited in the fullback/h-back role due to his size:
The #Packers have continued their trend of picking great athletes, at least for the most part.— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 25, 2020
All three of their picks would have an elite #RAS, over 8.4...at the positions I had them listed at.
Josiah Deguara doesn't hit that at TE (listed at FB).
And if you want to spot a trend, take a look at recent acquisition John Lovett, a converted quarterback, now tight end, and probably future H-Back out of Princeton. The Packers nabbed him off of waivers from Kansas City, and he reportedly was also drawing interest from the 49ers. Lovett is a nice tight end project, but like Deguara, he projects even better in the Juszczyk role due to his size.
John Lovett went undrafted in the 2019 draft class.— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) May 5, 2019
John Lovett posted a Great #RAS with V.Poor size, Great speed, Good explosiveness, Elite agility at the TE position.#Chiefs pic.twitter.com/tQT9WWsKOx
While he’s only an 8.2 at TE, he jumps up to an elite 9.69 at fullback. (Thanks to @Mathbomb for running this additional card). Adding to the indications that he could potentially fill a Juszcyk-like role is the fact that the 49ers reportedly also put in a waiver claim for him this week.
If you want to be truly effective in heavy sets, your heavies need to be able to catch. The entire point is to force defenses to use base personnel against you, and exploit those slower defenders in the passing game. It’s no mistake that we heard so much about AJ Dillon’s hands on draft day, and it’s no mistake they drafted a player like Deguara so high even though consensus was he could have been had later. I don’t really care for over-drafting players due to scheme fit, as one of the benefits of a non-standard scheme is to allow you to get such players later and save draft capital. But we should also note that the scheme in question does work, and works best with an elite player at this particular position. Whether Deguara or Lovett are that answer remains to be seen, but it’s fair to say the Packers have a type, and you can expect them to show interest on every athletic fullback or undersized tight end that happens to become available.