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The Endangered Hynocerous: A look at the increasing irrelevancy of fullbacks

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New York Giants' fullback Henry Hynoski is great at his job, but it may not matter if there is no job to be good at. This is a look at the utter uselessness of the charming fullback position. What was once an integral part of an effective ground game, is now an afterthought in today's passing league. What value does the fullback hold in 2015? Is Hynoski's job safe?

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It is often stated that offensive linemen are the least revered part of an NFL team. The only time people really talk about them are when they make a bad play and get their quarterback in trouble. Yet, every year, a franchise-worthy left tackle is the most sought after product on the market. Good offensive linemen are rare. Great ones are practically unicorns.

The position has also shifted in recent years thanks to a higher offensive dependency on the passing game. Instead of the traditional snow plow style of running the ball, these big guys take on the role of a gorilla in the ballet. Kicksteps, counter-moves, arm technique. Pass protection is seriously difficult. Ask any of the lads up front to choose between crashing straight ahead or dropping back to protect and the majority will favor the run game. So, the players who are good at doing the other thing, the thing that coaches, quarterbacks and diva wide receivers want them to do, those guys tend to get paid. I have no sympathy for the offensive lineman.

While their role may have evolved over time to reflect the needs of their scheme, there is another position that is being phased out altogether. There's a man behind that line whose job is to pave the way for star running backs by picking up that linebacker at the second level to spring a rush for an extra 15 yards. This is a position that is relatively useless in the passing game, but, when used properly, can be a massive weapon for a ground attack. This is the heavy artillery. This is the fullback.

While offensive linemen can forego fame in favor of fortune, the fullback has neither option. The fullback is almost always an afterthought. There hasn't been a fullback drafted in the first round since 1994 when the San Francisco 49ers took William Floyd with the 28th pick. There hasn't even been a fullback drafted in the first three rounds in more than a decade.

Basic market principles dictate that if nobody values a certain commodity, then its stock will fall and you'll be able to get the same goods at a much cheaper price. Why would you risk your neck on drafting a fullback when you can get perfectly good ones right on the street? Of the top 12 fullbacks graded by Pro Football Focus last year, eight of them were undrafted. A general manager selecting a fullback before day three of the draft will now certainly face criticism, and possibly a firing squad.

Let's look at some data regarding fullbacks. Only four teams last season utilized a fullback in a major capacity; the 49ers, Ravens, Bengals and Raiders. The drop-off between these four teams and the rest of the league is about 160 snaps. Oakland led the league by a considerable margin last year, but even then a fullback wasn't even used on half of their offensive plays. Everyone else on the field may have responsibilities that are evolving to cater to a pass-first league, but this position is simply dying.

According to PFF, fullbacks were targeted by the quarterback just 264 times in 2014. That's just four percent of the total number of snaps played by the position league-wide. Compared to the rest of the offense, fullback targets account for only 1.4 percent of total passes. 98.6 percent of the time, the quarterback is going to throw it to someone else. Outside of staying in to block, the fullback just does not have a place in a modern passing attack.

So, why am I harping on about a dying breed? Why do I care about a position that nobody watches? Heading into next season, I am one of the few who are in the camp that the New York Giants' fullback Henry Hynoski does not have a guaranteed roster spot, despite stellar play and an inexpensive contract. I say this with a heavy heart because, like many others, "The Hynocerous" is one of my favorite players. He's a throwback to a previous generation. Boy, I tell ya, if this was the 1960s, Hynoski would be making the big bucks, or well, like maybe $200 because players were a lot cheaper back then. At the very least, he could have been someone the old boys reminisce about down at the tavern.

Now, however, is a totally different story. As of 2013, Forbes magazine estimates that only punters and long-snappers are paid less than fullbacks. They're even paid less than placekickers despite a higher snap-count, dependence on physicality and risk of injury. But, placekickers put points on the board far more often than any fullback in today's NFL, and herein lies my argument for why Hynoski, or any fullback for that matter, cannot be guaranteed a roster spot in 2015.

One year ago, the Giants hired a new offensive coordinator, Ben McAdoo, to replace an outdated scheme entirely exhausted by Kevin Gilbride. McAdoo succeeded Gilbride's "Run and Shoot" style with a shiny new West Coast offense that relied on short passes, lateral lanes and quarterback efficiency. The particulars of this new scheme remained a mystery throughout training camp last year, but something caught the eye of several beat reporters and I saw the same small detail being written about in various different columns.

When McAdoo was hired, there were two competent fullbacks on the roster, but most of the reports indicated that both healthy players stood and watched practice from the sidelines, only stepping in for one or two plays at a time. It became clear that McAdoo's offense didn't necessitate a dedicated fullback. With one year of data under our belts, it re-emphasizes that point.

Hynoski saw the field on less than one in five plays in 2014, which is about half as often as he did under Gilbride's old scheme. However, Hynoski's usage last year is not indicative of how often a player lined up to block with a fullback responsibility. The Giants wanted to run a no-huddle offense and keep the flow of the game on their side, so, instead of substituting players, McAdoo simply had the tight-end Larry Donnell stay on the field and motion into the backfield to perform fullback duties. Despite being massively inferior at this task, it makes logistical sense to keep Donnell on the field.

Offensive snaps played in 2014 PFF run blocking score
Larry Donnell 76.9% -13.1
Henry Hynoski 18.0% +5.3

"No-huddle" is popular in the NFL because it doesn't allow the defense to swap in players for situational personnel packages and formations. More importantly, it doesn't allow them to rest. Sure, your players don't get to rest either, but the basic design of the game benefits the offense. For the team who possesses the ball to be successful, they just need one player to get open and they can win the play. If one of your receivers is too tired to beat a cornerback on a deep post, that's okay because you still have a myriad of options available to you. If you're the defense and one of your cornerbacks is out of energy, that could be a big reception, a whole lot of yards, and even a touchdown. Systematically, the defense is always at a disadvantage in the passing game because it just takes one player out of place to create a big play, and the no-huddle offense exposes that flaw with laser accuracy.

It's about minimizing your disadvantages, and clearly, McAdoo values tempo over talent when it comes to the fullback's role in his offense. It's hard to blame him. You see, despite the low-cost contracts and the undrafted status, the true value of a fullback isn't calculated in the last line of a spreadsheet. When you carry a fullback on your roster, you suffer an opportunity cost. If you can train your players to utilize a dynamic skill-set instead of pigeon-holing towards individual roles, your square pegs fit a little better in those round holes. Suddenly, you can run that no-huddle offense. You have an extra roster spot for that fringe wide receiver. That small bump in the salary cap is the difference between missing out on a priority undrafted free agent or not.

This problem is best exemplified by a series of scenes from HBO's documentary 'Hard Knocks'. Two years ago, while covering the Cincinnati Bengals, a narrative emerged regarding a camp battle between veteran fullback John 'The Terminator' Conner and Orson Charles, a tight-end converting to a new position in the hopes of sticking on the regular-season roster. This story arc carried through a few episodes and ultimately culminated with a hidden camera scene showing head coach Marvin Lewis as he explained who would be cut. Conner thought he had the job. I thought he had the job. PFF's +2.9 preseason ranking for Conner compared to his rival Charles' +0.1 ranking implied that they too thought he had the job.

"This is a hard one. I know you've put your heart and soul into this. You didn't do anything wrong. You have done everything. It's more just maybe the versatility of Orson, not necessarily what you didn't do."

Conner didn't get the job. Unknowingly, Lewis had summed up not only Conner's immediate future, but the state of the position going forward. Versatility is key. One trick ponies are not welcome when the big kids play, no matter how perfect your pony trick may be. Thanks for putting your nuggets on the line, but maybe next time, try your hand at being a kicker. I hear there's good money in that racket.