Fullback is a dying position in the NFL. But there's a small handful of players trying to trigger a resurrection in 2010.
Peyton Hillis, Jason Snelling, Mike Tolbert and John Kuhn are trying to prove this fall that there is still a place in NFL offenses for the big back.
Fullback was once a staple in offenses. The halfback supplied the speed in the running game, the fullback the power. Jim Brown, the greatest player of all time, was a fullback for the Cleveland Browns.
Jim Taylor and Jim Nance also won rushing titles in the 1960s as fullbacks. As recently as 1977, Mark van Eeghen won an AFC rushing crown for the Oakland Raiders at the fullback position.
But the lines became blurred as the NFL moved into the 1980s. The halfback and fullback designations were dropped and all ball carriers became "running backs." Then came the 1990s and the "feature" backs -- the Barry Sanders-Emmitt Smith era, where one back would receive 95 percent of the touches with fullbacks reduced to mere blockers.
The 2000s gave us an influx of second- and third-tight end sets, with fullbacks disappearing from fields altogether. Only 12 NFL teams now include a fullback in the starting lineup. Sixteen offenses are using an extra tight end, which makes sense. They give teams a bigger blocker and better receiver than the traditional fullback. Four other teams start a third wide receiver in place of the fullback.
Hillis started two games for Denver at fullback last season. But Broncos coach Josh McDaniels didn't know what he had in Hillis, so he traded his fullback to the Cleveland Browns in the off-season for backup quarterback Brady Quinn.
Hillis has emerged as a Mike Alstott-type ball carrier for the Browns. At 6-2, 250, he hammers defenses -- pummeling Baltimore for 144 yards in a September game and New England for 184 yards last week.
Hillis ranks 12th in the NFL in rushing with 644 yards. He has touchdowns in every game but one and has eight overall. He's on track to become the first Browns runner to hit double digits in TDs since Kevin Mack, another fullback, in 1986.
Tolbert (5-9, 243) never carried the ball more than 25 times while serving as LaDainian Tomlinson's lead blocker in his first two years at San Diego. With Tomlinson gone this season, Tolbert has scored seven touchdowns and mustered 395 yards rushing, including a 100-yard game against Arizona.
Snelling (5-11, 223) stepped out from Michael Turner's shadow in Atlanta last season to rush for 613 yards. He has 280 yards this season, including a 129-yard game against Arizona.
Green Bay lost its 1,200-yard rusher Ryan Grant in the opener with a season-ending ankle injury, so the Packers have reverted back to the Taylor-Paul Horning era of offense with a true halfback (Bernard Jackson) and fullback (Kuhn).
Kuhn (6-0, 250) never had more than 18 carries in any of his first three NFL seasons but took 13 handoffs last weekend against the Cowboys for a career-high 50 yards. He also has had two nine-carry games this season and has 225 yards on the year.
There is still a place in the NFL for fullbacks. Sometimes teams just need to look a little harder for it.