The Patriots had a long line of succession at the fullback position in head coach Bill Belichick's first 22 seasons running the football operations in Foxboro.
Over the last two-plus decades, the Pats had a traditional fullback on the roster at some point in all 22 seasons before this year, and some of those seasons had multiple lead blockers rostered for the running game.
The passing of the torch began with Patrick Pass (2000-2006), who shared the responsibilities with Marc Edwards (2001-2002) and three-time Pro Bowler Larry Centers (2003) for a season. Then, it was Heath Evans (2005-2008) to Sammy Morris (2009-2010) to Lousaka Polite (2011), and eventually, Patriots 2010s All-Decade team honoree James Develin (2012-2019) spent seven seasons with the team.
New England loved its fullbacks so much that it even converted middle linebacker Elandon Roberts to fullback for the final nine games of the 2019 season when Develin and German-born fullback Jakob Johnson were on injured reserve most of the year.
Once Develin retired, Johnson (2019-2021) operated as the fullback over the last two-plus seasons until the team decided to move away from the position this offseason.
"I think it's just a fundamental, schematic thing. If you want that aspect of it, of putting a guy really that can go either way in a formation, then that's a good thing," Belichick said of the fullbacks value in 2018. "It creates different blocking angles. It creates a different balance in your offense."
After parting ways with Johnson in the spring, the Patriots told the now Raiders fullback that they weren't going to roster a traditional fullback this season, and that has been the case.
In the last two offseasons, the Patriots invested significant resources at the wide receiver and tight end positions. The team signed tight end duo Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, added Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne in free agency, and then traded for veteran DeVante Parker and drafted rookie Tyquan Thornton at wide receiver.
Last season, the Patriots used 21 personnel (2 WR, 1 TE, 1 FB, 1 RB) at the second-highest rate in the league, only behind the 49ers at 23 percent (261 snaps). Surprisingly, despite paying Henry and Smith over $56 million in guaranteed money, the Patriots were 27th in featuring two tight end sets, or 12 personnel, during the 2021 season.
The decision to move away from a traditional fullback was rooted in creating more playing time for the team's investments at the other skill positions, and so far, it has done just that.
"It just really came down to our depth as a football team at the skill positions, at running back, at receiver, at tight end. You only have so much time, you only have so many plays, so you have to make a commitment to something, and whatever you make a commitment to lessens your commitment somewhere else."
"So we decided to make our commitment to skill players without a fullback and work around some of the things that position gives. But there are also some things that you lose when you have a fullback in the game. So we feel like, in the long run, we're just going to be better doing it the way we are doing it," Belichick told Patriots.com this week.
Tight ends coach Nick Caley also offered an interesting perspective on how the Patriots have adapted to life without a traditional fullback in their running game.
"I don't talk in terms of fullback. It's really F. And that F, it's like a horse of a different hue, it can take on a bunch of different body types. Whether it's a tight end or more of an in-line tight end in years past, a pass-game tight end, or a true fullback in the James Develin, Jakob Johnson role, their body type," Caley said. "For us, we run all these runs from call it the one-back. We still have the ability to get to two-back with all those things, it's how you structure the formation. Week by week, it will depend on how we want to displace the formation, how we want to get to certain things and go from there. It's obviously less two-back stuff when you don't have a true fullback. But we have all those things in our inventory, and you work through those things in the spring as well. It's just a matter of what we want to do here per opponent on a game-by-game basis."
In the first six games of the 2022 season, most of New England's offensive plays have come in three wide receiver sets. With improved depth at receiver, the Patriots have been in 11 personnel on 65.5% of their plays on offense, while 12 personnel accounts for 14.4% of plays.
Although the shift hasn't led to an uptick in two tight end sets, partially because of Smith's ankle injury that caused him to miss one game, it has given their running game a much different look.
The two biggest advantages it has presented are lightening the box for top running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson while giving them more freedom in their reads. With most quarterbacks and skill players coming from spread offenses in college, New England is trying to make it easier for young players to transition into their system.
By using more three-receiver sets and spreading the field, fewer defenders are in the box than when the Pats ran the ball out of heavy personnel groupings with a fullback. According to NextGenStats, Harris and Stevenson are facing eight-plus defenders in the box on 24.4% of their rushing attempts this season. In 2021, Stevenson saw the second-most loaded boxes among running backs (41.4%), and Harris wasn't too far behind at eighth-most (31.7%). Combined, it's an over ten percent decrease in loaded box rate in 2022.
Stevenson, who has emerged as one of the NFL's top rushers, also said he prefers running the ball without a fullback since it gives him more space and flexibility to find running lanes. With a fullback, running backs are taught to follow their lead blocker through a single gap rather than read the defense to pick the best path forward.
"It's what I'm used to. Honestly, last year was my first time even having a fullback in front of me. I miss (Jakob Johnson), to say the least. But I like having more spread-out formations running the ball," Stevenson told reporters last week.
With the Patriots moving to more one-back formations, their most frequently used blocking scheme is now inside zone. In inside zone, the offensive linemen come off the ball at a 45-degree angle, with the center and backside guard executing a combination block on the nose tackle.
For the running back, he's reading the nose tackle and middle linebacker and can pick the vacated gap. In this case, the nose tackle and linebacker plug the A-Gaps, so Stevenson works to the off-tackle C-Gap, where there's more room to run.
"Personally, I like that better. Just because I can read the defense better, and there are usually less people in the box," Stevenson added. "Just getting back to basics. Spread formations and opening it up to try to run the ball."
Although they weren't as successful on the ground last week, New England still has the third-best rush offense in expected points added and is eighth in rushing success rate through six games this season.
After decades of success, moving away from a traditional fullback is going well for the Patriots offense.