NFL fullback fraternity stronger than ever in league's 100th season

ByNick Wagoner and Eric Williams ESPN logo
Sunday, October 27, 2019

A couple months ago, San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk was scrolling through Twitter when a picture from Los Angeles Chargers fullback Derek Watt appeared on his timeline.

The photo caught Juszczyk's attention. Perched on Watt's head was a black hat with white lettering that read "Make Fullbacks Great Again." Juszczyk immediately sent Watt a message asking where he got it.

As it turned out, the hat was a gift from Atlanta Falcons fullback Keith Smith. Juszczyk received his two days later and liked it so much that he ordered more and threw in a hoodie for good measure.

While most position groups across the league have a certain amount of kinship, you'd be hard-pressed to find one that is closer than the fullbacks. That's because there isn't a position in the league that has more consistently been said to be on the brink of extinction.

"It's cool because there's not a lot of us," Juszczyk said. "So, it is just kind of like across teams, you feel like your own little team just because we're all kind of going through the same thing. I'm lucky enough that I get a pretty decent amount of recognition around here but a lot of other fullbacks in the league don't really get that recognition so they all kind of band together and give each other that recognition."

Juszczyk and his fellow fullbacks have been hearing the narrative for years. Their position is supposedly "dying," but recent evidence would indicate that not only is the fullback surviving but thriving.

"Not every team uses my position," Watt said. "But teams that do, at least a handful that remained in the playoffs late last year, a majority of them had a fullback on the roster. I'm not saying that correlates to anything, but those teams that made it deep in the playoffs did have a fullback. That's just an observation."

In San Francisco, Juszczyk is an integral piece to everything coach Kyle Shanahan wants to do offensively. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he's played 144 snaps at the position this season, second to C.J. Ham of the Minnesota Vikings, who has played 167. And Juszczyk is keeping tabs on the rest of the group, convinced that the fullback is making a comeback and rattling off the statistics without having to stop to think about it.

"It's so funny everybody is like, 'Oh, the fullback is dying, the fullback is dying,'" Juszczyk said. "I mean, there's still 21 teams that have a fullback employed right now and everybody uses somebody else in that position if they don't have a fullback. But I really feel like the fullback play has been a lot better this season ... I do think there's a resurgence. NFL offenses are so cyclical. Everything just comes around in a circle."

Juszczyk didn't play fullback until the NFL, as he played tight end at Harvard. Watt's progression to the position came about a bit differently.

A prolific runner in high school, he totaled 2,685 rushing yards and 44 touchdowns during his prep career. He also served as the team's kicker and punter, earning Wisconsin state player of the year and USA Today All-America honors his final season at Pewaukee High School.

After a short stint at linebacker at Wisconsin, Watt switched back over to the offensive side of the football to learn the fullback position, and has been there ever since, finding his true calling as an NFL player.

Selected in the sixth round by the Chargers in the 2016 draft, Watt's strength is his versatility as a run-blocker, pass-catcher and core special-teams player. Watt has played just 62 snaps on offense this season through seven games, but 145 snaps on special teams for the Chargers.

"It's just another component that defenses have to worry about," he said. "If you're going to play fullback in the NFL, you've got to play special teams, for the most part. Most of the guys that are fullbacks are multiple contributors on special teams, not just in one phase."

Watt said one thing that helped his transition to the NFL is that he went to a school like Wisconsin, which places a priority on using a pro-style offense and running the football.

"Teams that haven't used fullbacks in the past are kind of incorporating it by using a fullback, or kind of a hybrid tight end playing that position more than you used to see," Watt said, when asked about the future of the position. "So who knows? The game changes a lot. Hopefully we're still around."

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