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49ers Fullbacks: Long Look Back, Brief Look Forward

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The fullback position is one of the most criticized positions by the fanbase over the last couple seasons. There's a lot of misconceptions about fullbacks, and they seem to suffer from the "you only recognize and remember them when you notice them messing up," dilemma along with kickers, long snappers and the like. A fullback can have a pretty solid season doing what he's supposed to be doing: - in the 49ers case - blocking, and get lambasted when he misses a couple or makes mistakes in the receiving game. That being said, the "Looking Ahead" section of this post is crucial due to the changes the 49ers are making in their offensive system going into next season.

Moran Norris

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2010 - Moran Norris 5 3 0 0 0 1 0 4 20 4 5 8 0

Moran has literally been the brunt of at least 30% of specific player woes on Niners Nation, which has to be a record for any fullback ever, and I'll admit I don't fully understand the sheer bulk of the flack he gets his way. Still, I do find his play to be lacking since his exile in Detroit for one season. Going 0-16 can do strange, strange things to a man, and as someone who was previously fond of the guy, I feel for him. When the Lions were a loss or two away from their 0-16 campaign, I couldn't help but have this sadistic lust for them to fail and lose out. A sick part of me wanted to see it happen, but when I'd turn on a game and I'd see the players and how distraught they looked, I felt like I needed to go to church and have a lengthy confessional regarding my twisted fetish for Detroit Lions mediocrity.

I'm getting a little off track here, but the point is, he hasn't been the same. So much can be said of Norris' blocking for Frank Gore pre-Detroit, whether you attribute that fantastic 2006 more to Larry Allen (basically the definition of "beast") or not, Norris unquestionably was one very heavy-duty cog that relentlessly kept things in motion. Now though, he almost seems like he does, well, nothing.

Which is, of course, a little unfair. Norris does his job more often than he doesn't do his job, and I actually like it when he gets the ball in his hands and gets to rumblin' stumblin' and bumblin', to quote a man for whom I have a fiery, burning hatred. His job this past season has been to block, almost exclusively, and lead the way for Frank Gore, Brian Westbrook, and Anthony Dixon. When he made blocks, he made them well. The thing about Moran is, he still appears to be in peak physical condition. He's big, burly, and seems to move as well as he's always been able to move, which has been surprisingly well for a man of his bulk. His trouble this past season seems to be entirely mental. The mistakes he's responsible for are almost exclusively due to him just missing a hole, not having good awareness to lead a running back behind him and things of that nature.

If I were to grade him in 2010, he'd be getting a 'C-' to a 'C.' You can do a helluva lot worse than Moran Norris in the backfield, but the team's propensity for phasing him out on more and more plays as the season wore on and the stakes got higher shows that he should be on the negative spectrum of that 'C' average.

After the jump, we take a look at the other fullback option on the 49ers' roster, 2011 free agents for the position and of course, the 2011 NFL draft ...

Nate Byham

Receiving Kickoff Returns Punt Returns
G Rec Yds Y/G AVG Lng TD KR YDS AVG Lng TD PR Yds Avg Lng TD
6 5 27 4.5 5.4 9 0 0 0 0.0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

I already talked about Byham a little bit two days ago in the tight ends post, but he is worth a mention here as well. He did see time in the backfield more and more as Moran Norris was phased out, and he seemed to do well. Byham has a future with the team, and has a lot to offer at both the tight end and fullback positions. Still, it's a very small sample size up until this point and if it were between him or Norris, I've got to go with Norris.

Looking Forward

If I were a betting man, I'd throw down some bills on the notion that neither Norris nor Byham takes any snaps at fullback in 2011. I think Norris is done as a 49er and that he no longer fits the scheme. Tom Rathman is staying on as the running backs coach, and he'll be looking for a player that fits his mold if the 49ers are to utilize the West Coast Offense properly. There are numerous options in both free agency and the draft, and I expect the 49ers to heavily pursue a guy in any way they can this offseason.

Free Agency

Le'Ron McClain, Baltimore Ravens: This guy is the top free agent in the class, and he's worth every penny he'll command, which shouldn't be a lot. Before this past season began, McClain campaigned on Twitter for more carries, but didn't get them due to the increasing ability of Ray Rice. Rice is just a guy the Ravens wanted to give the ball to in every situation and it's understandable as to why. McClain was a great blocker though, and fits the bill of a West Coast Offense fullback. As the primary back, he came just short of rushing for 1,000 yards in 2008 and is only four seasons into his NFL career. Re-signing in Baltimore may be more of a longshot than the current perception implies, if he's serious about more carries. He can get them in San Francisco.

John Kuhn, Green Bay Packers: He'll probably re-sign with Green Bay as he is a fan favorite, and I really can't see him going elsewhere. Still, he would fit the bill of what the 49ers are looking for nicely, and he could come at a decent price.

Vonta Leach, Houston Texans: Vonta made the Pro Bowl this year, surging past McClain in the fan voting, with the support of the rest of the Pro Bowl selection teams as well, apparently. He's not the kind of guy you use for a lot of offensive production directly, though, which means Jim Harbaugh and the Niners aren't going to pay a lot of money for him. If they are looking for a more traditional blocking fullback, though ... they've found their man. This guy leads the way on essentially every play and can make short work of any pass rusher.

Heath Evans, New Orleans Saints: Evans is a solid option for fullback and has good hands. He's a good blocker, but has never been depended on for a huge workload. Could be a very cheap target if New Orleans doesn't bring him back.

Mike Tolbert (RFA)
Lawrence Vickers
Tony Richardson
Marcel Reece
Ahmard Hall
Naufahu Tahi
Michael Robinson
Brit Miller

2011 NFL Draft

It might be more likely that the 49ers pursue a fullback in the upcoming draft, especially with the uncertain labor negotiations and things of that nature. A solid fullback can go in the mid to late rounds, and they can often be picked up with relatively high upside as undrafted free agents. One of these guys stands out, and that's Owen Marecic of Stanford. He played both fullback and linebacker under Jim Harbaugh and sounds as though he'd be excited to play for him again. Marecic fits the bill for what the 49ers would be looking for and I would honestly peg him as worth as high as a third round pick providing that the 49ers fill significant needs in the first two rounds, otherwise, somewhere in the fourth or fifth is good.

The team would be getting a capable blocker with a penchant for contact and that is important first and foremost. He has some question marks when it comes to his running ability, but he seems viable in the short yardage situation and most definitely has reliable hands. Sounds like a perfect fit, honestly.

As opposed to what most are saying, the guy I personally like as the second option would be Charles Clay of Tulsa. He absolutely blows up the first guy he makes contact with, and good footwork and vision make him ideal in space to make any kind of adjustment + block you could want. He has rushing and receiving ability, with a definite exclamation point on the latter. This past season, he caught the ball 43 times for 526 yards with 7 touchdowns. Here's a look at Drafttek's FB rankings. The first number is their ranking among fullbacks, the parenthesis indicated DraftTek's ranking of them on their overall big board.

1(84) Owen Marecic, Stanford
2(106) Stanley Havili, USC
3(127) Shaun Chapas, Georgia
4(177) Henry Hynoski, Pittsburgh
5(236) Charles Clay, Tulsa
6(245) Vai Taua, Nevada
7(290) Matt Asiata, Utah
8(304) Anthony Sherman, Connecticut
9(322) Robert Hughes, Notre Dame
10(375) Isaac Odim, Minnesota-Duluth

QB | HB | FB | TE | WR | OT | G | C | DE | NT | OLB | ILB | CB | S | K/P | KR/PR