The Evolution of Fullback in Green Bay & the NFL

One of the most interesting positions in football history

John Kuhn running the ball by Mike Morbeck / CC BY-SA (

So What Happened to the Star Fullback?

In the late-1970s the NFL passed a rule which made it illegal to contact a receiver who is more than five yards downfield… did that rule indirectly kill the featured fullback?

We believe so, yes. We’ll explain, but first check out the rule.

Taken from the NFL’s Football Operations Evolution of the Rules:

In 1978, the NFL further freed up receivers with the illegal contact rule, restricting contact beyond 5 yards downfield. And it loosened the interpretations of holding by offensive linemen by giving them permission to extend their arms and open their hands on pass plays.

The NFL would never be the same. Defensive backs could no longer interfere with receivers as they ran their routes downfield, even if the ball hadn’t been thrown yet. The passing game, now more free and open, would define the next 40 years of NFL football. It really began with Dan Marino showing the football world what modern high-flying offenses could become in the mid-1980s.

Passing obviously became more prevalent as receivers could get open much easier and offensive linemen got more leeway while blocking. Starting in ’78 holding was called less because of this change in philosophy from the NFL and the referees. These factors resulted in fullbacks blocking more often for quarterbacks that were throwing more passes than ever. It simply meant even more blocking for fullbacks.

Simple mathematics mean that there were now less runs per game, too. Thus those limited runs were given to running backs at a higher rate. There simply wasn’t enough ball for the fullback anymore in modern NFL offenses. The fullback position was already being lessened, but these rule changes were the death certificate for the position as a premier position.

Of course there would be a few exceptions, but no fullback would ever take the league by storm ever again. And again, just like in the 1920s, the tailbacks or running backs, were the league’s top scorers again.

Everything old is new again.

Defenders, especially blitzing linebackers were bigger than ever once the 1980’s came around and fullbacks had to be able to physically compete with those imposing men. As of the mid-1980s and the fullback position is nearly, completely transformed. And once again the Bears were in the middle of the fullback story.

Just like how Sayers had his Piccolo, running back Walter Payton had his fullback in Matt Suhey. He was Payton’s lead blocker and they would help lead the Bears to their 1985 Super Bowl win. Suhey had a bit more individual statistical success than Piccolo as he scored 20 career touchdowns, but he was never thought of as anything but Payton’s lead blocker.

Packers history repeats itself often and so does Bears history, obviously.

It was in this decade this fullback-running back dichotomy was etched in stone as the ideal NFL backfield. Of course, those ’85 Bears featured the most famous gimmick fullback in NFL history — Refrigerator William Perry. He scored his first career touchdown against the Packers on Monday Night Football.

In the 1980s the Packers did have Gerry Ellis as their fullback, it should be noted. No, he wasn’t their featured offensive weapon, but he did put up 35 touchdowns and was a big part of their turbulently-entertaining 1983 team. Even though they didn’t have the success the Bears had, they still had a difference making fullback.

Also from this era, Washington’s John Riggins, deserves mention. However he transitioned into more of a true running back by the time he was a household name in the NFL.

A more accurate example of a notable blocking fullback of this era is Tom Rathman for the San Francisco 49ers. He helped his team win two Super Bowls, occasionally ran the ball and was in some ways a goal line specialist that was known more for his touchdowns scored than yardage gained.

In 1989 he posted a career-high 921 yards from scrimmage and in 1992 he hit his career high in touchdowns scored (9). Over 75% of his career touchdowns were on the ground, which makes sense for a battering ram of a back.

That said, he sure could catch the ball. His 73 receptions in ’89 led all running backs and fullbacks in the NFL.  Make no mistake, Rathman helped usher in the era of the “Modern Fullback” in the NFL. Which is the type of fullback that Packers fans specifically enjoyed for much of the Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers eras.

In the 1980s when quarterbacks passed more, running backs became more often used receiving threats. This again contributed to fullback usage being lessened, in terms of the balls in their hands.

The fullback position, once again, was forced to adapt. Quarterbacks responded by finding these men out of the backfield more often as the next decade unfolded.

The “Modern Fullback”

In the 1990s fullbacks grew in size and most were around the 235-260 pound mark. In this era fullbacks were blockers, but had to be able to catch more passes than they did in the 1980s. This is because the league featured Marino, Brett Favre, John Elway, Steve Young, Troy Aikman and many more quality quarterbacks. It was more of an aerial game than ever before.

A fantastic example of this type of fullback was Daryl Johnston of the Dallas Cowboys. The “Moose” was the leading blocker for Emmitt Smith (the NFL’s all-time leading rusher). Smith wasn’t as talented as many of the great runners that came before him, so it does let you know how good his supporting cast was. Johnston was a huge part of that success for Smith and the Cowboys dynasty.

Johnston came out of the Rathman mold, but was seemingly more widely recognized despite lesser career stats.

Again, in the ’90s the fullback was officially a blocking position first (while also requiring ball skills) with a few exceptions.

One major exception to this was Larry Centers. He took the ‘catching more passes’ idea for “Modern Fullbacks” to another level for the Cardinals. In 1995 alone he caught 101 passes, the most ever in a single-season for a fullback. Incredibly, six times he topped 600 receiving yards in a season.

Another exception was the Packers’ Edgar Bennett. For a couple seasons the Packers actually featured Bennett as a runner, unlike the aforementioned fullbacks. In the mid-1990s though the Packers transitioned into having running back Dorsey Levens and fullback Bennett as a lethal tandem. They were the last running back-fullback duo in Packers history to both be legitimate weapons in the backfield at the same time (a kind of throwback to the days of Hornung and Taylor).

Bennett posted four-straight 1,000+ yard seasons and was a big part of the Packers’ 1996 Super Bowl Championship season. He and Levens combined for 17 touchdowns that year including the playoffs.

However as the “Modern Fullback” position evolved throughout the decade, the Packers were once again leading the NFL in adapting the fullback position.

Many teams around the league were looking for a large blocking back that could run or catch when needed. The Packers already had one on the roster.

In that 1996 season William Henderson, in his second season in Green Bay, became the team’s true fullback as Bennett became labeled more so as a halfback.

Henderson would then help define what the fullback position would be in Green Bay for the next 20 years. He was a Packer until 2006 and he became a model of the “Modern Fullback” — versatile, unselfish, intelligent.

He was a blocker primarily, but scored 19 touchdowns and put up 2,835 yards from scrimmage. His biggest impact on the stat sheet was as a pass catcher. Unlike fullbacks from the NFL’s earliest days, he wasn’t a runner, but instead a threat out of the backfield. Who doesn’t love remembering him hurdling defenders after catching a pass in the flat?

A similar notable fullback from this era was Tony Richardson primarily of the Kansas City Chiefs. Legendary? No, but absolutely solid at everything he did.

In 2004, Henderson was named First Team All-Pro, finally recognized for his special career of work. Henderson was Ahman Green’s lead blocker, the running back that would eventually dethrone Jim Taylor as the Packers’ all-time rusher (just to take things full circle). Henderson would stay in Green Bay through the 2006 season.

John Kuhn took over the position in 2007 and he, arguably, took fullback to the next level. He became a fan-favorite, especially near the goal line. The chants of “Kuuuuuuhn” at Lambeau Field, and around the league, were simply special. He scored 23 touchdowns in his Packers career, but added another seven in the postseason. He blocked for Ryan Grant, Eddie Lacy, James Starks and more. Like Henderson, he has his Super Bowl ring and was named First Team All-Pro.

Both were blockers first, make no mistake, but both had enough offensive ability to step up when needed. We dive into how special they made the fullback culture in Green Bay here.

What was truly unique about Henderson and Kuhn is how long they gave Green Bay a cohesive excellence to the fullback position for two consecutive decades. There were better individual fullbacks in their era, such as Lorenzo Neal, but no franchise had the consistency that Green Bay had at the position.

In all, the Packers have had an amazing six fullbacks named First Team All-Pro. Some were featured backs, some were blocking backs, but all are worthy of remembrance. The history at this position in Green Bay is unbelievably underrated. No franchise has had more fullbacks so highly-awarded.

The Bears, with their amazing history at the position, have had four fullbacks named First Team All-Pro. It’s interesting to see how these two ancient franchises, and rivals, helped fullbacks dominate the NFL and evolve with the times.

However the Bears have gotten away from fullbacks in recent years. Matt Forte had fullback Jason McKie for a couple seasons, but since McKie left in 2009 they’ve more or less abandoned the position. They’ve also struggled offensively for most of those seasons. That is definitely something to think about…

Fullbacks and the NFL Draft

The last time a fullback was drafted in the First Round of the NFL Draft was 1994.

Yes, it’s been 26 years since an NFL team heavily-invested in fullback. The San Francisco 49ers drafted fullback William Floyd out of Florida State with the 28th pick in the ’94 NFL Draft.

He had a strong seven year career, but he never lived-up to the First Round hype. His rookie year turned heads with six touchdowns, but that would end up being his best season as a pro. In the ’94 draft, just two fullbacks were selected.

Look back to say, 1962, and it’s interesting to see how fullbacks were drafted back then.

That year, in the middle of the Jim Brown and Jim Taylor dominating the league, two fullbacks were drafted in the First Round of the ’62 NFL Draft. And it should be noted that there were only 14 picks per round in the NFL Draft back then. In fact, there were three fullbacks selected in the first 19 picks and the first of the three went fifth overall. In total, 11 fullbacks were drafted.

To pick another random year, we look at 1948, when two fullbacks were drafted in the First Round including the fourth overall pick. That year, oddly, 11 fullbacks were also selected.

In that 1994 Draft, the last time a fullback was selected in the First Round, just two fullbacks were selected in the entire draft. What about today? In the 2020 NFL Draft exactly zero fullbacks were drafted. In truth, no fullback has been drafted since 2017.

What a difference in eras.

But as we mentioned, the Sayers impact (and also give credit to Simpson and others) changed the NFL. The passing game, aided by multiple rule changes, changed the game of football even more.

All of these factors have combined to almost kill the position. However in Green Bay this position has such great recent history that we believe it’s worth dissecting further.

William Henderson vs John Kuhn

We don’t mean this in the traditional sense of one guy vs another. We absolutely love both fullbacks and understand they both helped shape the modern fullback position in Green Bay in their own ways.

But we did want to see how Packer Nation saw these two guys. We asked people which was your favorite fullback?


Twitter Poll July, 2020.


Facebook Comments for Question “Your Favorite Fullback?”

The results were pretty interesting. Twitter preferred Kuhn, but Facebook was an exact 50% split when I added up all the comments. Perhaps it breaks down to age? Twitter is slightly younger so they prefer the fullback they grew up watching? That’s our guess. But how awesome is it that we even get to ask this question?

When talking about fullbacks with NFL fans of a certain age you seem to always hear one name come up. That name: Mike Alstott.

Mike Alstott was essentially the extinction burst of the fullback position as a premier position in the NFL. He was a league-wide favorite as he routinely ran the ball with a belligerent style not seen in the league in years. In the late 1990s and early 2000s he had to have broken more tackles than anyone else in the league, right?

Although it may surprise some to learn that he had just one season with 1,000+ yards from scrimmage and no 1,000+ yard rushing seasons. He was a touchdown machine though and was a weapon in the passing game. But he never threatened to win a major award or lead the league in any category.

He wasn’t an example of the fullback position being a featured position again in the NFL, he was simply an aberration.

Into the 2000s, despite Alstott’s success, many NFL teams abandoned the fullback position altogether.

The Packers didn’t because they had Henderson. He was too valuable of a player. The team transitioned painlessly to Kuhn who knew the offense better than anyone not named Aaron Rodgers.

In the 2010s almost half the league got rid of using a conventional fullback. One of the only true blocking fullbacks left in the NFL is Derek Watt, now a Pittsburgh Steeler. He rarely touches the ball, but still brings great value to his squad.

Watt aside, the fullback position is evolving again around the league (like it has for the last 100 years). As mentioned, in recent years there have been less fullbacks used as true blockers and more “utility infielder fullbacks.” You know, backfield weapons that can do it all, but with a little more speed.

Lets just say the Packers are all-in on this growing trend.

What do the 2020s Hold for the NFL’s Original Premier Position?

Is the FB/TE hybrid the future of the fullback position? Perhaps teams will have a true receiving tight end and then a hybrid fullback-tight end. We could call this the “New Modern Fullback.”

Get used to hearing the term “h-back” a lot in the coming years as “11 personnel” becomes more and more popular. Like we said, all things old are new again. This formation uses just one running back and one tight end, but does allow for other hybrid players to thrive, too.

fallIn some ways, this is a return to the NFL’s distant past where some offensive players wore multiple hats, being used in a different way depending on the play.

We should quickly mention that the Packers tried to continue their same fullback culture that stems back to the 1990s with Aaron Ripkowski in through the mid 2010s, but that simply didn’t pan out.

Despite his similar size to Henderson and Kuhn, his fumble in the 2016 NFC Conference Championship Game was a killer and we believe it derailed his career. Danny Vitale, although a short-lived fan-favorite, never really got a shot to be the fullback in Green Bay either. It seems as though Green Bay truly is transitioning away from the “modern fullback” and toward a more hybrid approach.

Josiah Deguara is, potentially, an example of the future of fullback in Green Bay and in the league. The rookie will certainly get his shot to make a difference in 2020.

Is he a fullback? Well no, he’s a tight end.

But he’s more of a tight end, h-back, fullback hybrid. We are hoping he’s used in a plethora of ways in the Packers’ backfield. He seems intelligent and should be used as early as 2020 as a receiving threat out of the backfield and in the slot. We also see him taking snaps in the backfield as a lead-blocker and potentially even taking some misdirection hand-offs and the occasional reverse.

Why the hell not? With him, it’ll all be about keeping the defense guessing on every play.

Deguara is certainly not going to be a lead-blocking fullback in the traditional sense. The Packers may or may not have a true fullback in 2020. They did recently bring in John Lovett who also potentially fits the h-back mold of Deguara. But it remains to be seen if he’ll have a spot on the final roster.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleuer wants that “illusion of complexity” in his offense. That probably doesn’t involve a straight-ahead blocking fullback; it definitely does involve a player that can be a threat out of the backfield on any play. We see Deguara thriving in that role. Bringing Lovett in solidifies the idea that that is what the ideal fullback type player will look like while LaFleur is this team’s head coach.

Deguara had one rush in his college career at Cincinnati, we see him getting a couple carries this season. Although he’ll mostly be chipping edge rushers and running routes out of the backfield hoping to create mismatches with covering linebackers.

We see Deguara in the mold of San Francisco’s Kyle Juszczyk. He rarely runs, but is a versatile receiving threat and adequate blocker.

A man ahead of his time was Keith Byars of the 1980 and ’90s. He was a running back, a tight end and a fullback — 25 years before the era of hybrid fullbacks. After 54 touchdowns and a Pro Bowl nod specifically as a fullback, it’s certain that he had a hell of a career.

Lets hope that Deguara can put together a similar career. If he can, this offense is going to be scary for the next several years.

Evolution is Inevitable

We’ve seen how the fullback position has changed so much over the first 100 years of NFL football.

Thus, we know it’s going to continue to evolve with every passing season. The Packers have often been on the cutting edge when it comes to the fullback position, literally from the very beginning. When the position became the premier position they had one of the best lining up in their backfield. As the league went more toward a “modern fullback” approach they had back-to-back reliable, fan-favorite modern fullbacks, too.

As the fullback position evolves into a versatile h-back, we see them again influencing the way the position is played. Perhaps as soon as 2020 Deguara will help lead this next change. No, he won’t be able to block like Kuhn, but we think he’ll be an even better pass catcher than Henderson.

After seeing how fullbacks have impacted Packers and NFL history so drastically, aren’t you excited to see how they’ll influence the next 10 to 20 years of professional football?

If Deguara, a 2020 third round pick, adds a couple pounds he’ll be the ideal weight for a Packers “modern fullback” although, we see him staying a bit leaner so he can remain a viable threat catching the ball. What’s funny is the Packers’ 2020 second round pick running back A.J. Dillon is 10 pounds heavier than Deguara.

They have the potential to be the next great running back-fullback (or h-back hybrid) duo in Packers history. The Packers also have the reigning NFL touchdown champion in Aaron Jones and another strong, fan-favorite back in Jamaal Williams.

This backfield is absolutely stacked. And this is before mentioning future First Ballot Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers and 2020 first round pick quarterback Jordan Love. Wow.

It’s fun to see the Packers get younger as they look to the future and that the fullback position, although it may look a lot different, is still a part of their plans. Whether it’s 1930 or 2030, fullbacks in Green Bay will be key to the Packers staying near the top of the football world. I mean, we could be wrong, but history repeats itself and we have 90 years of Packers football to rely on.

The fullback position will never be the same that it was 20 years ago, but then again that’s been true in every generation. It’ll be fun to see what it looks like in another 20 years.

Go Pack Go!

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We seek to bring more context to, and share interesting stores about, the history of the Green Bay Packers and the NFL as a whole. Clickbait be damned. "We" are Daniel and David Zillmer; hit the about or contact to learn more.

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