Every now and then, Darrel Young jabs Jay Gruden with a not-so-subtle reminder.
Ten snaps. Six snaps. Four snaps.
In seven games this season, the Washington Redskins’ fullback has played less than 10 percent of the team’s offensive snaps — a sharp decrease from the 20 percent he’s played each of the last two years.
“He lets me know he’s out here, but we know where he is and know he’s a dependable guy and we’ll get him involved as the season goes on,” Gruden said.
Young’s reminders are always playful and never hasty. Like any competitive player, he wants to be on the field, but more importantly, he wants what is best for a team that has been hard-pressed for success. Entering his sixth season with the Redskins, he’s experienced the highs, like winning the NFC East in 2012. He’s endured the lows that followed, when the Redskins won just seven games combined in 2013 and 2014.
“I’m never going to be happy not being out there, but I just want to win,” Young said. “If it requires four reps, I need to do those four to the best of my abilities and play special teams. I’m happy with my role. Whenever they call me, I’m ready to go out there.”
The only problem is that call is coming less frequently — not just for Young, but others at his position. In recent years, teams have begun eschewing fullbacks for multiple-tight end sets and three-receiver formations.
Ten teams — the Arizona Cardinals, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Chicago Bears, the Denver Broncos, the San Diego Chargers, the Miami Dolphins, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Indianapolis Colts, the St. Louis Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles — do not have a fullback listed on their roster.
For years, the NFL has been shifting toward a pass-dominant league. According to Football Outsiders, teams operated out of the shotgun formation on 61 percent of snaps in 2014, compared to just 20 percent in 2006. Even when quarterbacks are under center, fullbacks are seeing less playing time.
Teams like the Bengals or Colts, which don’t carry a fullback, will line up a tight end as an H-back, slightly offset behind the tackle’s hip, or they’ll motion into the backfield when they feel the need to have a lead blocker. Ryan Hewitt, a second-year tight end from Stanford, is listed on the Bengals’ roster as an H-back. The Bears have a fullback listed on the depth chart, but it’s tight end Zach Miller.
Last season, no team had a fullback on the field for more than half of their offensive snaps. The San Francisco 49ers used one the most, with Bruce Miller on the field 43.6 percent of the time. In 2013, the Carolina Panthers used Mike Tolbert on a league-high 58.2 percent of their snaps. The numbers have continued to decrease. This season, Tolbert again is the most-used fullback, but he’s only on the field 35.1 percent of the time.
“It’s just kind of what your flavor is as a coach,” Gruden said.
Last year, Young made 10 starts, compared to just one in seven games this season. Gruden and the Redskins have favored multiple-tight end sets, instead opening games with tight ends Jordan Reed and Derek Carrier on the field. At times, the Redskins will even use a three-tight end formation with Anthony McCoy.
For Gruden, it’s all about finding the best matchup and disguising different looks.
“A lot depends on your tight ends,” Gruden said. “With Derek emerging as a pretty good tight end and Jordan coming back, you’re looking at more two-tight end sets, and you don’t want two tight ends and a fullback. Then you talk about taking a receiver out. When DeSean [Jackson] comes back, you’re talking Pierre [Garcon], DeSean and [Jamison] Crowder. You don’t want to take them out.
“You want to get your best players on the field. Not to say D.Y. is not one of our best, but you try to get the matchups you want. Try to get them in nickel defense, take a linebacker out and put a DB in, and maybe your runs are better against that than having a fullback in against a linebacker.”
Former fullback and NFL Network analyst Heath Evans, who played from 2001 through 2010, has seen the change firsthand.
When he was playing with the New Orleans Saints in 2009, he sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week 7. Saints coach Sean Payton replaced Evans with 6-foot-3 tight end David Thomas, who’s three inches taller than Evans.
“It gave Drew Brees different length, more route options than I could run,” Evans said. “There is some truth that if you can get a more athletic guy in the backfield that gives you more height, range and catch radius and don’t have to sacrifice too much on the blocking side, then you make those tradeoffs.”
The days of the Lorenzo Neal-type fullbacks are long gone. The three-time All-Pro played 16 seasons, from 1993 to 2008. For 11 consecutive seasons, the 5-foot-11, 275-pound bulldozer paved the way for a running back who rushed for over 1,000 yards.
Some teams still use fullbacks frequently. Coincidentally, the Redskins have faced four of the five most-used fullbacks this season: the Atlanta Falcons’ Patrick DiMarco, the New York Jets’ Tommy Bohanon, the St. Louis Rams’ Cory Harkey and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Jorvorskie Lane.
Harkey is listed on the Rams’ depth chart as a tight end, but he’s played 28.3 percent of the team’s snaps at fullback, the fourth-highest frequency in the league.
Part of the problem is that the traditional fullback is hard to find, largely because of the rampant use of the spread offense at the college and high school level.
“That is a position that, you know, based on where you are, it’s leaving us,” said Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith. “I still think there’s a place for it. But the type of athlete that you’re looking for, that’s what’s hard to find. We have a unique athlete in Jorvorskie Lane, who, if you ask him, he’d tell you he’s a tailback, but his body doesn’t say that.
“The fullback position is leaving to an extent, but I don’t think it’ll ever leave completely.”
Evans contends that the teams that still feature fullbacks are the ones that are competing for Super Bowl titles the last few seasons, which reflects their importance in an offense.
“When you look around the league and teams that have been most dominant over the last three or four years, you look at what the Ravens have done consistently, the Seahawks have done consistently, the Patriots do consistently … they all use a fullback and they all played important downs throughout championship runs,” Evans said.
“That being said, the type of fullback you decide to spend a roster spot on has to be versatile. He’s got to be a guy that can make special teams plays, can catch the ball out of the backfield. Maybe even be a guy that can carry on short yardage.”
Young exemplifies many of the characteristics Evans mentioned. He’s one of the anchors of the special teams unit, playing 66.3 percent of the snaps, second on the team to safety Jeron Johnson. After two special teams miscues — a 69-yard punt return in the season opener and a blocked punt on the first drive against the New York Giants — Young held himself accountable in making sure the unit bounced back.
“A lot of young guys are out there running around trying to make plays, but guys like myself have to enforce what we’re trying to accomplish out there,” Young said.
Though he’s hardly getting any snaps on offense, Young finds other ways to contribute in practice. Sometimes that means lining up on the scout team to help the defense prepare against an opponent that prominently features a fullback, or playing the role of a bigger back, like he did before the Redskins faced Chris Ivory and the Jets.
“I’m living a kid’s dream,” said Young, who converted from linebacker to fullback after signing with the Redskins as an undrafted free agent out of Villanova in 2009. Young was on the Redskins’ practice squad for two weeks during the regular season before he was cut. He was re-signed in 2010 and has since played in 81 games.
“Playing at a I-AA school, if they wanted me to stand on the front line of a kick return and get ran over every single play, I would do it to the best of my ability,” he said. “I do a lot of scout team stuff. I just go out and say, ‘Hey, I’m the fullback for the week,’ and that’s the beauty of it, that’s how I get my work and that’s how guys get promoted from practice squads. It’s just an opportunity to get better. You have to take advantage of every situation.”