Statistical Preview of 2009 Free Agency: III. Fullbacks

So far in Parts 1 and 2 of my free agency previews, I've identified Jeff Garcia and Vernon Carey Mark Tauscher as the best available free agents who fit (a) the characteristics of playoff-caliber signings at their position, and (b) what performance attributes the 49ers are looking for at each position. Based on your poll votes, you've tended to agree with me, although a majority thought the 49ers should draft a QB after the 1st round, and a near-plurality thought they should draft a RT.

Today, in Part 3, I'll be taking a look at the free agent fullbacks. As before, I'll begin with an argument for evaluating only a select group of FBs that fit a certain profile. Then, I'll present the available stats, and conclude by ranking the specific free agent FBs who fit the profile.

IDENTIFYING THE TARGET(S)

Needless to say, Mike Martz's 2008 offense did not utilize a traditional lead-blocking FB. In fact, from looking at the game logs for the season, the 49ers appeared to have a hard time actually identifying their starting FB on the roster. Billy Bajema, who's listed on the roster as a TE, started Game 1. Zak Keasey - who looks more like a buff Zack de la Rocha than a FB - started Games 2-4 before getting injured. For the remaining games, Bajema started 7 in the backfield, Delanie Walker (another TE) started 1, Sean Ryan (listed as an H-Back) started 1, Michael Robinson (a college QB/versatile RB) started 1, and a ghost (aka no FB) started 2. It's evident, then, that the Niners had FB problems in 2008. What's also evident is that, because Mike Martz chose Keasey over Moran Norris as a better fit for his non-lead-FB offense, there ended up being no lead-blocking FBs on the roster when Mike Singletary - and his preference for smash-mouth football - took over as HC.

Based on what happened in 2008, Singletary and Jimmy Raye have made it clear that reintroducing a lead-blocking FB to the 49ers' offense is a major goal of this offseason. Their identification of FB as a need position for the Niners is well justified for several reasons. Statistically speaking, the Niner offense was 31st in 3rd-and-short DVOA, 32nd in 1st down rush DVOA, 29th in red zone rush DVOA, and 32nd in power running success in 2008. Besides an upgrade in the OL, nothing helps performance in these situations like a "big, square-backed" lead blocker. In terms of non-statistical reasons, (arguably) the 3 most important individuals involved in the 49ers' running game are all admitted FB proponents: Raye, RB coach Tom Rathman, and #1 RB Frank Gore. Raye's biggest success as an OC was when he had Tony Richardson in KC. Rathman obviously was a FB in his playing days with the 49ers, but he's also been the RB coach for lead-blocking FB offenses since 1997, having coached William Floyd, Marc Edwards, Fred Beasley, Cory Schlesinger, and Zack Crockett. As to Gore, since the FB started to be phased out of the Niner offense during the second half of 2007, Gore has seen his production decrease and his soreness increase. You have to believe he misses "his FB."

So Singletary et al. want - rather, need - a lead-blocking FB to run the type offense they want to run, and get the type of production they want out of that offense. Needing such a FB is one thing; acquiring one is another. This got me thinking: What is the state of the FB position in the NFL? In other words, how many teams consistently rely on a lead-blocking FB? Also, because the Niners think adding a FB will help them reach the playoffs, here's a related question: Do FB-dependent teams reach the playoffs more often than FB-indifferent teams? Even if the answers to these questions favor the 49ers consistently relying on a FB, which of the 2 routes, free agency or the draft, is the better option for finding a player who can immediately step in and fit their "square-backed guy" criterion? I know this is an article about free agency, but when was the last time an NFL team signed a much-ballyhooed, lead-blocking FB? Similarly, when was the last time I heard of a much-ballyhooed FB draft pick? The answers to all of these questions might give us a hint about how the 49ers should proceed in their FB search, and with whom their FB search might result.

Below is a table showing the "starting" FBs in the NFL. The reason I put quotation marks around "starting" will quickly become obvious:

Player

Team

GS

Pos

How Acq

Age Acq

Round

Karney, Mike

NO

8

FB

Draft

--

5

Vickers, Lawrence

CLE

8

FB

Draft

--

6

Hoover, Brad

CAR

11

FB

Draft

--

ND

Hall, Ahmard

TEN

11

FB

Draft

--

ND

Tolbert, Mike

SD

7

FB

Draft

--

ND

Weaver, Leonard

SEA

7

FB

Draft

--

ND

Jones, Greg

JAC

7

FB/RB

Draft

--

2

McClain, LeRon

BAL

16

FB/RB

Draft

--

4

Hillis, Peyton

DEN

6

FB/RB

Draft

--

7

Schouman, Derek

BUF

12

TE/FB

Draft

--

7

Bajema, Billy

SF

10

TE/FB

Draft

--

7

Robinson, Gijon

IND

14

TE/FB

Draft

--

ND

Sellers, Mike

WAS

6

TE/FB

Draft

--

ND

McKie, Jason

CHI

8

FB

Free Agent

23

ND

Leach, Vonta

HOU

12

FB

Free Agent

24

ND

Hedgecock, Madison

NYG

10

FB

Free Agent

26

7

Mughelli, Ovie

ATL

13

FB

Free Agent

27

4

Lawton, Luke

OAK

7

FB

Free Agent

28

ND

Norris, Moran

DET

8

FB

Free Agent

30

4

Richardson, Tony

NYJ

7

FB

Free Agent

36

ND

After the jump, I'll discuss the table, identify 4 free agent FB targets, and pick the one who best fits what the Niners are looking for (aka a lead-blocking FB)...

As always, housekeeping comes first. The number of games a FB started is indicated in the "GS" column. When a FB is listed as "FB/RB" it means that he has recent experience as his team's primary ball-carrier. I say recent because, although Tony Richardson was KC's leading rusher a decade ago, it's been a long time since any team has considered giving him primary RB duties, even as an injury replacement. When a FB is listed as "TE/FB," it means that he is used primarily as an H-Back, which involves both lead-blocking and (more frequently) TE responsibilities. When a FB was acquired via the draft but is listed as "ND (which stands for Not Drafted)," it means he was signed as an undrafted free agent by the team for which he currently plays. In other words, he wasn't really acquired via free agency in the typical "signing another team's FB" sense. The opposite is true for FBs acquired through free agency. An "ND" classification in their case means that they were signed as an undrafted free agent by their former team, and therefore represent the typical type of free agency acquisition. OK...housekeeping complete.

First question: What is the state of the FB position in the NFL? As suggested by my use of quotations for the term "starter," the NFL has become a FB wasteland. Whereas figuring out who each team's starting QB and RT was easy, I had a tougher time with such a task as it relates to FBs. The result is that the above table only includes the 20 FBs who started 6 or more games for their team in 2008. Below the 6-start threshold, you descend into an underworld of teams that basically don't have much use for FBs. Of the 20 FBs listed in the table, only 1 started all 16 games (McClain), and only 9 started 10 games or more. Although the temptation is to conclude from these meager totals that FB isn't that important to NFL teams, the 10-starts-and-up crowd probably would have started all 16 games were it not for the fact that a team's "starting FB" may not actually play the team's first offensive snap (i.e., start). So, conservatively, we can say that about one-quarter of the league consistently relies on a starting FB.

It's a little more difficult to answer the question about whether consistent reliance on a FB is associated with a greater likelihood of making the playoffs. In the above table, the teams listed in bold italics made the playoffs in 2008. Focusing on teams with 10 or more FB starts, 6 of the 9 made the playoffs. Moreover, 2 of the 3 FB-reliant teams that didn't make the playoffs (BUF and SF) actually used their FB in the H-Back mold. So, ignoring the 3 teams with 10+ starts from an H-Back, 5 of the 6 teams that relied on a lead-blocking FB made the playoffs. So the conclusion here is that relying on a lead-blocking FB was associated with making the playoffs in 2008, right? Wrong. If I were to expand the table to include the "starting" FBs for all 32 teams, we'd find that 5 of the bottom 9 teams in FB starts made the playoffs, including the two teams that played in Super Bowl XLIII. So actually, the better conclusion is that playoff teams in 2008 were more likely to either (a) consistently rely on a lead-blocking FB or (b) ignore the lead-blocking FB altogether. Indeed, the middle 15 teams in FB starts accounted for only 1 playoff participant in 2008 (SD).

Obviously, based on his firing of Martz and hiring of Raye, Singletary chose the "consistently rely on a lead-blocking FB" route. The next question, therefore, is, "How should the 49ers acquire their lead-blocking FB?" To answer this question, we need to refer back to the table. As shown, 13 of the 20 "starting" FBs were acquired via the draft. Although this would seem to suggest that more "starting" FBs are acquired via the draft, it's important to note that 7 of the 13 FB draft picks don't actually serve as lead blockers for their teams. So really, 6 lead-blocking FB "starters" were drafted by their current teams, whereas 7 were signed as free agents. In statistics, we'd call that a "nonsignificant difference."

Here are a couple of other things to consider. With respect to drafting a FB, if you ignore the 7 FB/RBs and H-Backs, 9 of the remaining 13 FBs were either drafted in the 7th round or signed as undrafted free agents. This seems to suggest that, if a team wants a lead-blocking FB, they can get away with waiting a looooooong time on draft weekend to acquire him. Although not as relevant to the 49ers situation, this reality is also evident if you don't ignore those "hybrid" FBs: 5 of the 7 hybrids were also either drafted in the 7th round or signed as an undrafted free agent. In case you weren't keeping track, that's 6 out of 20 "starting" FBs in 2008 who were drafted before the 7th round.

The second thing to consider relates to free agency. Of the 7 FBs signed as free agents by their current teams, only 3 could reasonably be considered to have been full-time FBs at the time they were signed: Mughelli, Norris, and Richardson. The other 4 were young, no-name, practice squad/special teams players when they were signed by their current team. Based on these two breakdowns, then, it appears that NFL teams (a) pick their "starting" FB late in the draft, (b) sign him as an undrafted free agent, or (c) sign him when he's an inexperienced no-name.

In summary, then, less than half of the NFL teams employ a lead-blocking FB as their starter. In terms of making the playoffs, 2008 seems to suggest that relying on a lead-blocking FB is akin to the "all in or fold" poker situation. Finally, FBs are a dime a dozen. For the most part, NFL teams either wait until late in (or after) the draft to pick one, or they sign another team's inexperienced, no-name free agent.  

THE LITTER

Here's how I would apply the above stats to the 49ers' current situation:

  • They should probably draft their "square-backed" starting FB in the later rounds or sign him as an undrafted free agent, rather than signing another team's free agent.
  • If they choose to sign a free agent to be their starting FB, that free agent should probably be an inexperienced no-name.

These recommendations pose an interesting problem for my article. How am I supposed to statistically preview inexperienced, no-name free agent FBs when they can't possibly have accumulated an adequate amount of trustworthy stats? Well, the truth is that I can't. Luckily (for me), though, none of the FBs who are currently listed as unrestricted free agents meet this description. Therefore, what I'm going to do is present stats for the free agent FBs who (a) have enough stats for a trustworthy analysis, and (b) are in the FB mold that Singletary, Raye, or Rathman are likely to covet. Basically, a 49er FB signing this offseason might not be ideal according to the norms, but, as you'll see, the cupboard is far from bare. Here are the 4 free agent FBs I'm going to discuss:

Tony Richardson, age 37

Lorenzo Neal, age 38

Moran Norris, age 31

Leonard Weaver, age 26

When looking at these FBs, it should be clear to you that I consider Richardson, Neal, and Norris to be more in line with Singletary's and Raye's ideas of a starting FB, and consider Weaver to be more in line with the type of FB Rathman might favor. In fact - and this is just my opinion - Weaver seems like Rathman reincarnate. Among these players, Richardson would be the logical choice given his multi-team history with Raye. But what do the stats say?

Aside from Weaver, the only job duty for these FBs - if they sign with the Niners - is to be the lead blocker on running plays. Therefore, there's no use in relying on player-specific stats here. Instead, I have to look at indicators of how well each player blocked. I've chosen 5 such indicators: 2 measures of his team's blocking performance (team ALY and power running ranking); 1 measure of his team's overall running efficiency (team rush DVOA); 1 measure of his team's #1 RB yardage value (#1 RB DYAR); and 1 measure of his team's #1 RB running efficiency (#1 RB DVOA). Because none of these stats are specific to the FB position, I'm going to change things up from previous free agency previews, and present the relevant stats covering all of the player's seasons as a lead-blocking FB starter (rather than just the past 3 years).

Here are the relevant stats for Richardson, Neal, Norris, and Weaver:

Tony Richardson

37 yo

6'1" 238 lbs.

 

Year

Team

Team ALY

Rk

#1 RB DYAR

Rk

#1 RB DVOA

Rk

Team Rush DVOA

Rk

Power Rk

2001

KC

4.45

3

380

1

20.2%

1

12.2%

3

4

2002

KC

4.48

5

539

1

31.2%

1

27.2%

1

5

2003

KC

4.50

3

480

1

24.8%

3

21.9%

1

14

2004

KC

4.72

3

273

4

23.4%

2

21.8%

1

8

2005

KC

4.62

3

468

1

23.3%

1

15.5%

4

10

2006

MIN

4.30

14

10

33

-7.8%

33

-7.7%

22

12

2007

MIN

4.23

13

228

4

16.4%

7

10.9%

4

2

2008

NYJ

4.76

4

235

5

11.7%

7

10.5%

5

25

Average

 

4.51

6

327

6

17.9%

7

14.0%

5

10

Lorenzo Neal

38 yo

5'11" 255 lbs.

 

Year

Team

Team ALY

Rk

#1 RB DYAR

Rk

#1 RB DVOA

Rk

Team Rush DVOA

Rk

Power Rk

1999

TEN

4.26

6

70

15

-3.4%

18

5.1%

4

1

2000

TEN

3.92

20

105

14

-2.3%

16

1.3%

14

29

2001

CIN

3.77

23

31

22

-6.4%

28

-12.8%

24

24

2002

CIN

4.35

10

140

11

2.0%

18

-4.0%

19

1

2003

SD

4.21

16

365

2

20.5%

4

16.6%

2

13

2004

SD

4.20

15

88

20

-2.5%

29

3.9%

11

7

2005

SD

4.39

9

331

6

15.8%

6

18.2%

2

2

2006

SD

4.82

1

453

1

23.4%

3

22.0%

1

4

2007

SD

3.98

24

287

2

13.6%

11

2.6%

11

19

Average

 

4.21

14

208

10

6.7%

15

5.9%

10

11

Moran Norris

31 yo

6'1" 250 lbs.

 

Year

Team

Team ALY

Rk

#1 RB DYAR

Rk

#1 RB DVOA

Rk

Team Rush DVOA

Rk

Power Rk

2003

HOU

3.68

29

40

27

-4.4%

29

-11.4%

27

16

2004

HOU

4.14

19

154

11

3.8%

16

0.9%

14

11

2005

HOU

4.43

8

66

19

-1.5%

18

-5.4%

13

30

2006

SF

4.48

7

242

8

10.1%

12

-2.1%

13

28

2007

SF

4.28

11

130

14

4.3%

21

-11.1%

25

24

2008

DET

3.55

31

88

22

-0.3%

23

-14.3%

30

10

Average

 

4.09

18

120

17

2.0%

20

-7.2%

20

20

Leonard Weaver

26 yo

6'0" 251 lbs.

 

Year

Team

Team ALY

Rk

#1 RB DYAR

Rk

#1 RB DVOA

Rk

Team Rush DVOA

Rk

Power Rk

2007

SEA

3.74

29

-74

48

-17.3%

46

-10.0%

21

27

2008

SEA

3.86

29

6

39

-10.2%

43

-7.9%

26

4

Average

 

3.80

29

-34

44

-13.8%

45

-9.0%

24

16

 

Year

Team

RB

Rec DYAR

Rk

RB

Rec DVOA

Rk

Rec

Yds

Rec EYds

 

2007

SEA

87

11

17.3%

14

313

379

2008

SEA

44

28

15.6%

14

222

200

Average

 

66

20

16.5%

14

268

290

In terms of a FB's run-blocking ability, this competition isn't even close when looking at the 5 stats I've presented here: Tony Richardson has been the best by far. His teams have been in the top 5 of ALY rankings 6 times in 8 seasons as a lead-blocking FB, and in the top 5 of rush DVOA rankings 7 times. In addition, his #1 RBs have been in the top 5 of RB DYAR rankings 7 times, and in the top 10 of RB DVOA rankings 7 times.

What makes Richardson's stats even more attractive, especially in light of his age, is that he doesn't appear to be a player whose effectiveness as a lead blocker has fallen off considerably over time. Really, the only one of Richardson's stops that didn't produce a spectacular running game was his 2 seasons in MIN. Even in MIN's case, however, the dropoff in performance be explained in 1 of 3 ways: (a) a problem with Richardson, (b) a problem with Richardson's #1 RB, or (c) a problem with the offensive system. I don't think it was due to (a) because Richardson went to the Pro Bowl after the 2007 season and seemed to be just fine in 2008 with NYJ. And I don't think it was due to (b) because MIN's leading rushers were the not-too-shabby Chester Taylor in 2006 and the pretty-awesome Adrian Peterson in 2007. Therefore, I think it was probably (c) because Brad Childress is a disciple of Andy Reid, who, from the table I showed you earlier, doesn't seem to rely much on a FB.

In terms of the other Singletary-esque free agent FBs, Neal and Norris at this point seem to - like Dorothy - want to get the (site decorum) out of Oz. Despite having blocked for several above-average #1 RBs (most notably in SD), and having blocked on several above-average running teams, Neal found himself rubbed out in BAL after the arrival of John Harbaugh, and, by proxy, LeRon McClain. After all, who needs a lead blocker when a battering ram FB is your #1 RB? A similar fate befell Norris when Ted Tollner arrived in SF as a "special offensive consultant" in 2007, and Martz arrived as a "special lead-blocking FB hater" in 2008. Of course, Martz showing up in SF was especially disastrous for Norris because he ended up playing for a winless DET team. So, it appears that, for both Neal and Norris, signing with a team that has a functioning OL and actually uses a lead-blocking FB (aka clicking their ruby slippers) would probably benefit them both performance-wise and psychologically.

Finally, there's Weaver. From his lead-blocking stats, he's easily the worst of the 4 free agent FBs. Of course, that's to be expected because he's easily been the least utilized lead-blocking FB of the 4, and he's blocked for the worst #1 RBs. Therefore, I've added his individual receiving stats to see if, ala Tom Rathman, he's been a benefit to SEA's passing game. Although it's based on only 2 seasons, his stats seem to suggest he is a very efficient receiver. From a 49er perspective, all we needed was one sunny day this past November to give us (and Singletary) enough evidence for that conclusion. Just to be clear, though, keep in mind that Weaver's receiving DVOA is ranked among all NFL RBs - not just FBs - who had at least 25 passes thrown their way during the season. In other words, his ranking means he was the 14th-best receiving RB in the NFL the past 2 seasons, which is way better than being the 14th-best FB. Overall, I'd say that, if the 49ers think he'd develop his lead-blocking skills with Rathman (I mean he's only 26) and benefit from having Gore as his #1 RB, then Weaver might actually be a pretty valuable acquisition.

PICK OF THE LITTER

Here's how a tablespoon of stats and a teaspoon of opinion suggest the 4 free agent lead-blocking FBs should rank:

  1. Tony Richardson
  2. Leonard Weaver
  3. Moran Norris
  4. Lorenzo Neal

Richardson is the best choice given his consistent lead-blocking prowess, and he's the most likely choice given his coach-player relationship with Jimmy Raye. Weaver is the next-best choice because of his age, receiving performance, and intriguing skill-set similarity to Tom Rathman. Moran Norris is ranked next because he's 7 years younger than Neal, his stats have suffered the past 2 seasons due to coaching factors outside his control (aka Tollner and Martz), and he's Gore's favorite FB. Finally, Neal brings up the rear. His stats aren't as good as you'd think given the caliber of teams for which he's played and #1 RBs for which he's blocked (Eddie George, Corey Dillon, and LaDainian Tomlinson). If that's the case, why have Neal circa 2009 when you could have Neal circa 2002 with Norris?

 

On Tuesday, I'll be previewing the pass rushers. TO BE CONTINUED...

**DVOA, DYAR, and ALY statistics used to produce this article were obtained from Football Outsiders.

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