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Fullbacks don’t work in the modern NFL

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

In recent years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been one of the few teams to have a dedicated fullback on the roster. That position is rapidly disappearing from the NFL, and almost exclusively filled by cheap veterans and undrafted rookies. More and more, you see teams just not lining up with a fullback, or with a nominal tight end in that role when they do. But the Bucs doubled down on the position by drafting Dan Vitale in the sixth round of this year’s draft.

That may not have been a smart move. The Bucs’ one-back running game ranked eleventh among all NFL teams, but its two-back running game ranked just 20th. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the rankings obscure an even bigger gap: a -5.5% efficiency for the one-back running game, but a disastrous -20.2% two-back DVOA rating (Outsiders’ measure of efficiency). That would rank 26th among one-back running games, because almost every offense is worse at running with two backs than they are at running with one.

In that light, the move to draft Dan Vitale and re-emphasize the two-back running game is a strange one, or at least a questionable one. The NFL trend is to move away from two-back sets, and for good reason: it just isn’t efficient. Koetter’s going against the grain, and maybe he can make it work, but odds say that he’s implementing an outdated way of playing offense.

Only four teams posted positive DVOA numbers with two-back sets. It just hasn’t been a winning strategy for NFL teams, as defenses have effectively shut down those running games across the league.

Of course, what goes for the NFL as a whole doesn’t necessarily need to go for the Bucs, especially given Dan Vitale’s versatility. Usually a fullback is just a blocker. For Koetter, he’s more H-back and versatile chess piece who can also serve as a lead blocker. In fact, drafting Dan Vitale is of course a move to spruce up a faulterting two-back running game. Hopefully, that’ll save the Bucs offense from succumbing to this somewhat disturbing trend.