Here at Niners Nation, we're presenting a series called "90-in-90". We'll be looking at every player on the 49ers offseason roster, one player per post, from now until the start of training camp.
The NFL works in revolutions -- both in the sense of getting back to where it once was and in moving forward.
Today's game panders to the quarterback position more than ever; with 5,000 yard seasons, more passing touchdowns, less interceptions, and higher completion percentages as evidence of that. With the emergence of the dominant quarterback and the NFL's decision to market individual players as primary to team success, passers enjoy huge paychecks, notoriety, and, when they deliver the goods, praise.
Somewhere in all that, the art of the fullback has been lost.
Chase Stuart of Football Perspective detailed the former glory of the fullback position and reasons for its decline back in May:
"And now, the fullback is practically extinct. Games go by without a team lined up (sic) even once in the I-Formation, as the three wide receiver set has replaced more traditional looks. The WCO has been replaced by the spread offense. It's fair to wonder if in ten years, the fullback will be gone for good: in April's draft, only three fullbacks were selected..."
Who is to say what will happen in 10 years, but the scarcity of the fullback position in 2012 and beyond is certainly perceivable.
Enter Jim Harbaugh.
What goes around comes around and while the league has been tailoring its defenses to combat the spread and rising consistency of 3/4/5-receiver sets, the San Francisco 49ers head coach has created a winning team based on a tough front seven and the most dominant run-blocking line in football today.
I remember the story of when Harbaugh was first hired. He called his former Michigan Head Coach Bo Schembechler, where Harbaugh had played quarterback, to inform him of the news. Before Bo would congratulate Jim, he inquired:
"Jimmy, tell me you are going to have a tight end that puts his hand on the ground on every snap, tell me you will have a fullback who lines up directly behind the quarterback, and a halfback in the I-formation," Schembechler said.
Of course it would be that way.
"Good," Schembechler said. "Then congratulations on getting the job."
Run-first football is making a comeback in the NFC West, and an integral part of Harbaugh's philosophy is the fullback.
Enter Bruce Miller.
Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuce Miller is a former defensive talent turned fullback for San Francisco. 2012 marked his sophomore campaign as he became an important part of the 49ers' offense, accruing 460 snaps on offense -- the 4th most of any fullback in the league.
In the pass game, Bruce has been reliable when used, garnering a 92% catch rate according to both Pro Football Focus (PFF) and Football Outsiders (FO). He was thrown at only 13 times last season, but caught 12 of those passes for 84 yards while forcing three missed tackles.
His efficiency as a receiver was measured at 17.0% according to FO's DVOA metric, which measures value per play. This would have placed him 9th among all backs had he caught enough balls to qualify. The small sample size warns us not to read too much into anything; but the fact remains: when targeted through the air, Bruce has produced well.
Miller's primary value in the Harbaugh offense, of course, comes as a blocker, where he graded out +7.1 through Pro Football Focus, good for 7th out of 25 qualified FBs.
Overall, he is a very solid fullback who has proved reliable in every task given to him. That is the best compliment you can give to a guy expected to do a lot of dirty work up front for Frank Gore and company.
Why Miller could improve in 2013
Bruce saw more snaps in 2012 than in his rookie season, and produced more as a run-blocker. Heading forward, with a potentially explosive offense that might increase its plays per game further, Miller will have a chance to continue his own progress in the run game.
As evidence of an increased role under the Colin Kaepernick offense, Bruce managed a great stretch of play in the playoffs where he graded very well via PFF in every game, nearly matching his seasonal value in only 106 postseason snaps.
He is coming off solid end-of-year play against playoff competition and has already shown year-to-year improvement. That bodes well for Miller entering year three.
On top of that, though the 49ers are not likely to look to Bruce's way first as compensation for the missing Michael Crabtree, Miller has still proven a reliable target out of the backfield. If the receiver position continues to pose question marks for San Francisco, Bruce may see more opportunities lined up outside, branching into the flat from play action, or, my personal favorite, running the wheel route.
With the likely heightened role of the pistol in 2013, and the continued Harbaugh/Greg Roman desire for a multi-faceted offense, Bruce will see a greater role in the backfield that could lead to more opportunities to both catch and run.
Miller only had 5 rushing attempts for 18 yards this past season; so improvement there is not hard to imagine should he be utilized every-so-often as more than just a lead blocker.
Why Bruce could regress in 2013
Miller is lucky in that his identity as a reliable player means we are not looking at any kind of spectacular numbers or unsustainable production level that may regress simply because it has to.
Bruce has produced in his youth through year deuce ... ahem ...
Bruce has produced over a large number of snaps through two seasons, and should continue to do exactly that.
If regression hits our young fullback at all, I believe it would come in the form of an injury. So, let's knock on wood and not let that happen.
Otherwise, expect continued production and, if we get it, I may find myself buying a Bruce Miller jersey.
Why? Because #49 is the hidden star of a burgeoning Jim Harbaugh offense that places the fullback on the pedestal where it once belonged. Miller, as a player in general and fullback in particular, represents 49er football as we have thus come to understand it:
Tough. Reliable. Varied. Old school.
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