It is one of the most unheralded positions in all of professional sports. Players put their health and future on the line going neck and neck against opposing defenders. It is a position that requires a lot of humility and sense of team; it is the fullback position.
Here in San Francisco we know all to well what having a good fullback on our team means to the success of the offense. The 49ers have had some of the better fullbacks in the history of the modern game, and I am not saying that as a biased 49er supporter.
You are looking at the likes of Earl Cooper, Tom Rathman, William Floyd and Fred Beasley. The common football fan may not know a lot about these players, but us die hard supporters understand exactly what they meant to San Francisco teams of the past.
Today, I am going to take a look at the fullback position as it relates to the upcoming free agent class. Additionally, I am going to take a look at in-house candidates to fill the position and what players on the market could interest the 49ers.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Heath Evans, New Orleans Saints
Analysis: Evans is more of your traditional blocking fullback and is extremely solid between the tackles. He has been the primary fullback for some really good offenses, however, those statistics haven't translated to an above average rushing attack.
I think he is the type of fullback San Francisco is looking at, but he wouldn't be a major upgrade at that position in my opinion.
John Kuhn, Green Bay Packers
Analysis: Now we are talking. Green Bay hasn't been one of the top rushing teams over the last couple of seasons, but I don't think that has to do with Kuhn's blocking ability. It has more to do with a lack of talent a long the offensive line and in the backfield.
Kuhn is a hard nosed player that would fit perfectly into what Harbaugh views a fullback to be. He doesn't require a lot of attention in regards to seeing the ball and is an extremely hard worker. The problem? I cannot see Green Bay parting ways with him and the feeling seems to be mutual.
Le'Ron McClain, Baltimore Ravens
Analysis: McClain is pretty much the anti-Harbaugh fullback. He wants to see the ball more, and that could be a primary reason Baltimore lets him walk. Don't get me wrong, he is an extremely talented blocker as well. I just don't see McClain fitting into what San Francisco is attempting to build on offense. I could be wrong, that has happened before; time will tell.
Vonta Leach, Houston Texans
Analysis: Reading reports on Leach, many experts believe that he is the primary reason Arian Foster led the NFL in rushing last season. Watching a little tape, I fully understand that to be the case. The dude gets right up into opposing defenders and knocks socks with the best of them. He is pretty much the best blocking fullback in the NFL.
This also means that Houston will attempt very hard to retain Leach's services in 2011. There is going to be a huge market for his talents and San Francisco should be one of those teams that will take a long look at him; please do!
Tony Richardson, New York Jets
Analysis; Richardson has been a very good lead blockers for a decade and a half. I am just not sure how much he has left in the tank, or is he even wants to play a 16th year in the NFL. If so, the 49ers may want to take a look at him as a stopgap in 2011.
Lawrence Vickers, Cleveland Browns
Analysis: He has been a pretty darn good fullback in the past, but not in 2011. Some of that had to do with the emergence of Peyton Hillis in the one back formation for Cleveland, but some of it had to do with struggles from Vickers. He is the type of fullback that Harbaugh would take a look at, but lets see what other options are out there first.
Restricted Free Agents
Marcel Reece, Oakland Raiders
Analysis: Did an extremely good job for the Oakland Raiders last season, helping them tear it up on the ground. Old school fullbacks are not a dime a dozen, so I fully expect the Raiders to retain his services in 2011. However, you can never pretend to understand what is going on within that front office, and they have a history of undervaluing that position. If Reece does become readily available I fully expect the 49ers to be in the front of the line to acquire his services.
Analysis: Sorry Mr. Gore, your bro didn't do anything of value for the 49ers in 2011 and it is time to move on. I still don't understand why San Francisco gave Norris a "lucrative" contract a couple years ago, but what is done is done.
Norris had been a solid fullback for the 49ers in his prior tenure with them, but something wasn't right in 2011. He allowed blockers to get low on him, didn't open up many holes and had some dumb penalties. I hope the 49ers are as prepared as we are to release Norris once free agency starts.
Analysis: I still may be in the minority here, but I think Miller can be valuable on the other side of the ball as well. He was an extremely solid pass rusher in college and has the technique for that to translate to the NFL. Owen Marecic went both ways for Harbaugh in college, so he may be looking for the same in Miller. I really cannot give you a strong opinion on how he translates to this new position until I see him in game situations during pre-season.
Analysis: Some of you "old school" 49er fans remember Earl Cooper, who played both h-back and tight end for the 49ers a couple decades ago. I am really intrigued by the possibility of Byham at the fullback position moving forward. He is an extremely strong blocker and performs well within the hashes.
I fully expect San Francisco to take a look at Byham at the fullback position in training camp and during the pre-season.
Analysis: Who said the 49ers don't have fullback options? Dixon would be a project at this position in 2011 because he was never asked to block at Mississippi State and was horrendous when asked to do so his rookie season. That said, he did get a lot better as the season went on and has the build to be a solid lead blocker in the NFL. However, I would be hard pressed to find a scenario where he is switched to that position.
Overview: We all know fullback is an important position in the west coast offense, and right now the 49ers are lacking a true fullback. The good news is that there are ample options out on the market to upgrade there. The bad news is that San Francisco may believe they are set at fullback. It is hard to read into anything, but I don't know if the 49ers are going to look at exterior candidates to fill the void.
If not, we are either stuck with Moran Norris or a couple unproven players that would be considered projects. Of the in-house candidates, my vote would go with Nate Byham; yet that still has me incredibly worried.
I personally believe that the 49ers must go after one of the stronger lead blockers on the free agent market this off-season. Vonta Leach, John Kuhn and Marcel Reese being the primary options.