Fullback has become a dying breed in the NFL, a relic of olden days when the power-run game was the paradigm and the passing game was still early in its development. But in the new age of high-octane passing offenses built around extremely fast and athletic skill players, the hard-nosed style of the traditional fullback has fallen into the background. Less than 10 teams now carry a fullback, with the need for more receivers overpowering the need for a lead blocker. The fullback is not dead yet, though, and the loud clash of pads and flesh will continue to ring in the ears of fearless linebackers, unaware of the surging road grader just behind the line.
The Carolina Panthers are one of the few teams to carry a fullback, and they have a good one at that. Mike Tolbert has developed into one of the most versatile backs in the league, even amongst halfbacks. Tolbert not only has the strength and size to operate as a traditional fullback, smashing defenders in the run game and getting tough yards on inside power runs, but can also be dangerous with the ball in his hands. Tolbert had seven rushing touchdowns in his first year with the Panthers, lining at halfback and fullback, and has 27 in his career.
Former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was a fan of Tolbert, using him in a variety of formations and featuring him from time to time in the running and passing game. New offensive coordinator Mike Shula‘s offense is much more conservative and doesn’t use as many creative formations and shifts as Chudzinski’s, and as such, Tolbert’s role is shifting. He won’t see nearly as many carries as he has in the past, being used more as a lead blocker in the I-formation than a featured runner. Tolbert should still see touches in the red zone because of his size, which should allow him accumulate a few touchdowns.
Though Tolbert’s role as runner is decreasing, his role as a receiver could be on the rise. Cam Newton already has receiving options in Steve Smith, Greg Olsen and Ted Ginn Jr., but Shula has emphasized limiting risk in his new conservative scheme. Look for Newton to target Tolbert on flares and short hitches to find a rhythm in the passing game as the season progresses. Hopefully that will take some pressure off Smith to be Newton’s go-to guy, and possibly give him some more confidence under center.