This was not much of a year for the fullback position in the 49ers offense. In the Martz offense, the fullback is really not much of a factor, so it was not all that surprising to see Frank Gore's compatriot Moran Norris get the axe before the season. Given the relative lack of a traditional fullback in 2008, most of this discussion is going to center on options for 2009. If the move to a more meat and potatoes running-heavy game is what will happen, a strong fullback is in order.
Zak Keasey started out as the fullback, but suffered a season ending injury in October that came pretty lose to eliminating the fullback position from the lineup. Keasey doesn't fit the traditional mold of the smashing fullback as he's been more of a special teams guy throughout his career. He seemed to make some strides, but a torn bicep ended his season in mid-October. Keasey is an exclusive rights free agent, which means that if the 49ers tender him a contract, he has to sign it. If he chooses not to he has to sit out the season. I'd say that of all the potential certainties this offseason, Keasey being resigned is probably highest.
Michael Robinson filled the role off and on in 2008 but he is clearly not the answer at fullback. In 2009 I think the second biggest certainty is that he won't be the fullback. He will be used in some two-back formations, but not as the traditional lead-blocking fullback.
Sean Ryan was signed as a tight end, but fit into a bit of an H-back role that included some work as a fullback. At most he might get brought back for training camp, but barring injuries, his chances of making the squad (if he's even re-signed) are pretty slim.
As this list shows, it was a pretty quiet year for fullbacks. Since the offseason began, folks have definitely clamored for the need for a fullback.
A quick look at free agent targets over at WalterFootball.com indicates some very attractive options, if the 49ers decide to look in that direction. In a fitting irony, Moran Norris is back on the market and I'd imagine the 49ers might make a play for him. Frank Gore had his best year in 2006 running behind Norris and I'd imagine the cost would not be all that much. Of course, fullbacks in general aren't a high paid group, so that's not as much of an issue.
The hiring of Jimmy Raye makes Tony Richardson an intriguing option, even at the age of 37. Richardson was the fullback for Raye in Kansas City, although those rushing attacks were pretty much crap. More importantly (and more cherry picking on my part), Richardson was the fullback in New Jersey this year and Thomas Jones had the biggest year of his career. It might be a coincidence, but in my head I'll just say it's because of Richardson...ok maybe not. Over at Rotoworld yesterday, they posted some interesting commentary about Richardson. They mentioned that he intended to play two more years and the Jets have not contacted him about a new deal. In their commentary on it, Rotoworld said:
New 49ers OC Jimmy Raye and Richardson's history dates back to their days in Kansas City, so it's only natural that he'd consider following Raye to San Fran. Richardson, 37 has a lot of game left and could help Frank Gore.
Lorenzo Neal is also an intriguing option, given the help he provided Ladanian Tomlinson in past years. Leonard Weaver is great up in Seattle, but I'd expect the Seahawks to lock him up.
Although I personally would prefer a veteran option at fullback, there are some solid options in the draft. I would suspect the 49ers go with a veteran and continue developing Keasey, but maybe they go the youth route. Although not quite a consensus, the top five fullbacks in no particular order include:
1. Brannan Sutherland, Georgia
2. Tony Fiammetta, Syracuse
3. Quinn Johnson, LSU
4. Eric Kettani, Navy
5. Conredge Collins, Pittsburgh
It's still early, but some extended mock drafts have fullbacks around in the 5th round and later, so it's not something that has to be addressed early on. And of course shouldn't be addressed early on.