Falcons’ Smith trying to ‘Make Fullbacks Great Again’

Falcons fullback Keith Smith wants to "Make Fullbacks Great Again" in the NFL. (By D. Orlando Ledbetter/dledbetter@ajc.com)
Falcons fullback Keith Smith wants to "Make Fullbacks Great Again" in the NFL. (By D. Orlando Ledbetter/dledbetter@ajc.com)

The NFL fullback is a dying breed.

Still, Falcons fullback Keith Smith is doing everything that he can to uplift the position even as spread offenses with so many wide receivers have seemingly taken over the league.

Smith has started a “Make Fullbacks Great Again” campaign and is doing his part for the Falcons (4-9), who face the 49ers (11-2) and their three-time Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk at 4:25 p.m. at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.

“It’s my little brand,” said Smith, a six-year veteran in his first season with the Falcons. “I’m trying to shine some light on all of the greats before us and the fullbacks playing now. It’s just how everybody is talking that it’s the last of a dying breed. I really feel like we are making a comeback.”

The position hasn’t been a priority for the Falcons since Patrick DiMarco left to sign with the Bills after the 2016 season. He went to the Pro Bowl in 2015.

Derrick Coleman played fullback in 2017 and Ricky Ortiz in 2018 before the Falcons signed Smith. Coleman and Ortiz were not featured and mostly played special teams.

Smith, who played four seasons with the Cowboys and one with the Raiders, provides some solid lead blocking with an occasional short-yardage run. He helped Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott win the NFL rushing title in 2016.

Also, the Falcons used tight end Luke Stocker as a fullback. He cleared the way for Devonta Freeman’s 13-yard rushing touchdown against the Panthers on Sunday.

“Anytime you can get a lead block in front of a running back, I think that helps the running back,” Stocker said. “He knows where to fit the run. Where to attack a defense. You get a guy right at the point of attack that can sustain a block, just for a split second, the running back can be by him.”

Stocker fully supports Smith’s campaign.

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“It’s definitely a position of value,” Stocker said. “It’s just a matter of putting in enough plays for the fullback to do that in this world of spread offenses.”

It seems like light years ago when the Falcons made Ovie Mughelli the highest-paid fullback in the league. That was back in 2007 when he signed a six-year, $18 million deal with a $5 million signing bonus.

“I’ve talked to him a couple of times,” said Smith of Mughelli. “Good dude. He reached out on social media. I sent him a ‘Make Fullbacks Great Again’ hat.”

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is pleased with Smith’s play.

“He’s been productive,” Ryan said. “Keith has done a good job for us this year....On the short yardage stuff, he’s been awesome.”

Running back Brian Hill also is a fan of Smith.

“It’s been great having Keith in front of me,” Hill said. “He just gives me so much confidence because I know that he’s going to get to his assignment and dominate the block.”

While Smith is having a solid season, the Falcons’ rushing attack has not. They are averaging just 80.8 yards per game, which ranks 30th in the league.

Despite having just three games with more than 100 yards rushing, Smith was pleased that the Falcons rushed for a season-high 159 yards last week against the Panthers.

“It’s just being disciplined, especially in rough times,” Smith said.

The Falcons will need Smith and Stocker against the 49ers, who give up 116.6 yards per game, which ranks 22nd in the league.

Some pass-happy teams have moved away from the fullback position. Smith had a idea to bring attention to the position.

“It’s kind of a selfless position,” said Smith, who played at San Jose State. “I kind of started this to bring some unity with each other. Before the season this year, I made out a little letter and set a hat out to all of the fullbacks around the league.

“It was a call to action to keep our standards high and support each other. Just to let them know that we’ve got each other’s backs. It’s a little acknowledgement to the guys who are doing great things around the league.”

Falcons fullback Keith Smith's lead block on Panthers safety Eric Reid led to a 3-yard gain by Devonta Freeman in  the third quarter on Nov. 8, 2019.  (Fox Sports screen grab Gamepass.NFL.Com)
Falcons fullback Keith Smith's lead block on Panthers safety Eric Reid led to a 3-yard gain by Devonta Freeman in the third quarter on Nov. 8, 2019. (Fox Sports screen grab Gamepass.NFL.Com)

Smith has counted 20 fullbacks in the 32-team league.

“People say that we are the last of a dying breed, but we actually have some numbers,” Smith said. “A lot of guys are hurt this year, but if you look around the league this year, especially on the top teams this year, you’ve got (James) Develin in New England, C.J. Ham with the Vikings, Kyle Juszczyk in San Francisco and Dan Vitale in Green Bay.”

Ironically, Daryl “Moose” Johnston, the former Cowboys fullback from 1989-99, will handle to color commentary Sunday for Fox Sports.

“This is kind of playing homage to the greats,” Smith said. “It was a big glory position at one time like when Moose was playing. There’s a lot of respect out there for those guys who kind of paved the way.”

Also, having a fullback may be an advantage against today’s defenses.

“Younger players coming from college they maybe go for or five years without even fitting a run against a fullback,” Stocker said. “So, if you can incorporate those things and make linebackers be able to play the pass as well in those spread offenses, as well as fit those two back runs, it can be an advantage to the offense.”

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