The disappearance of the NFL fullback began when Vikings rookie Khari Blasingame was a 17-year-old high school senior in New Market, Ala. That 2013 NFL season is the last time half the league’s teams prominently featured the position.
Six years later, Blasingame had options as an undrafted free agent. Some NFL teams wanted the former Vanderbilt running back as a running back. The Vikings sold him on a different path — convert to fullback and join an offense that wants to turn back time and “hit people in the mouth.”
Blasingame liked what he heard.
“Just a great fit, what they’re doing with the offense,” Blasingame said. “I felt wanted.”
As prolific NFL offenses from the Chiefs to the Steelers embrace a pass-first approach out of the shotgun, the Vikings, under assistant head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, want a balanced approach with the quarterback under center and the big men around him — including a fullback in 2019.
The crunching of pads is music to C.J. Ham’s ears. The Vikings’ starting fullback was phased out of the offense last season, playing only 140 snaps (13.3% of the team’s total) under then-coordinator John DeFilippo.
Kubiak, in his first season as Vikings offensive adviser, said he embraces the position.
“It’s very important,” Kubiak said. “It gives us a chance to be flexible. We can run a two-back offense [and] a one-back offense with the same personnel on the field. Both of our fullbacks catch the ball very well. C.J. gives us a chance to do some things on third down, too, because he’s got a chance to help you catch the ball and protect the quarterback.”
The Vikings doubled down, signing Blasingame as Ham’s backup to become just one of eight NFL teams that currently store two fullbacks on their 90-man preseason roster.
Twelve NFL offenses don’t list a fullback at all.
Ham got a taste during last week’s preseason opener in New Orleans, where he played half of the starting offense’s eight-play touchdown drive. The snaps were a good sign entering his fourth NFL season.
“The fullback is definitely present in this offense,” Ham said. “We’re going to get big and we’re going to get physical. It was stressed to us last year that we needed to run the ball, and we definitely have the right people and the right system to do that.”
Finding a place
There’s still room for the right kind of fullback in today’s NFL. Gone are the one-trick lead blockers, replaced by players like Ham, a converted running back adept at third-down pass protecting and screen catching while also able to take the occasional goal-line handoff.
Over the years, the position’s transformation is such that 49ers General Manager John Lynch labels the game’s leading fullback, San Francisco’s Kyle Juszczyk, as an “OW — offensive weapon,” because the 240-pounder averages 30 to 40 catches per season.
Offenses are too easy to defend if the fullback isn’t versatile.
“The better they catch the ball is important,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “Otherwise, [defenses] really load up on you. So, being smart is important, too. You got to be smart, athletic and be able to thump a little bit.”
Ham’s intelligence hooked Vikings coaches when he earned a practice squad role after his first preseason in 2016. He was a quick study in pass protection, an unsung duty that can burden young backs unable to read complex and shifting defensive fronts.
Ham is capable of aligning all over the field, another product of his savvy. He stepped up as an in-line tight end this spring when injuries thinned the Vikings’ options. He can motion out of the backfield and into the slot or out wide, giving the offense coveted flexibility with seemingly rigid, big-bodied formations.
A two-back offense also limits a defense’s options on passing downs, according to Zimmer, who said he’s less likely to unleash certain blitzes vs. additional backfield protection.
“C.J. is very important,” Zimmer said, “because there are a lot of things that he can do.”
There are strides to be made. One teaching moment came against the Saints, when Ham was quarterback Kirk Cousins’ lone backfield protector on a third-and-9 play. A brief misunderstanding of his assignment led Ham to hesitate. He was late to block blitzing linebacker Demario Davis, who pressured Cousins. The quarterback erased the error with a scramble for a first down.
Eliminating such slipups can help keep Ham a fixture in a fading position, because this Vikings regime believes in the fullback’s value.
“Just stay consistent and make sure the fullback continues to be in this offense,” Ham said.