Fullbacks, a dying breed? Rams’ Laskey making case for roster spot

Zach Laskey, who recently graduated from Georgia Tech, is the first to admit that fullbacks are a 'dying breed.'

Bob Donnan/Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS — This offseason, Rams free-agent signee and recent college graduate Zach Laskey has a bigger hurdle to overcome than the moniker "undrafted." 

He’s trying to become the first true fullback to make the team’s regular-season roster since Mike Karney in 2010, two years before current coach Jeff Fisher came aboard.

Laskey is an intriguing candidate for the position. At Georgia Tech, he was listed as a B-back, and though productive enough to be a significant factor in Tech’s rushing game, he couldn’t irrevocably secure the starting job. Missing three games with a shoulder injury his senior year didn’t help, though he still managed to land on the 2014 All-ACC second team.

During the 2015 draft, he got a call from the Tennessee Titans, who said they’d taken a running back in the fifth round and might be taking another one in the seventh. They called again to let him know they weren’t going to be able to pick him in the draft, but wanted him in free agency. Right after that, Laskey heard from the Rams.

He says running backs coach Ben Sirmans sold him on coming to St. Louis.

"He just made me feel really welcome, and wanted," Laskey says. "He told me that if I came, I’d be the only fullback they’d bring in for training camp. At Tennessee, they were talking about using me as a third-down back and a fullback. I knew they had drafted a fullback, so I figured St. Louis might be a better fit."

Even in St. Louis, however, he’s up for a challenge. Last year, Fisher was content to use tight ends Corey Harkey and Lance Kendricks to fill the fullback gap, and that approach highlights a broader NFL debate about the necessity of traditional running game personnel. Former Ram Steven Jackson, for example, currently has a campaign to save the every-down running back. And not long ago, the NFL Network did a segment based on the premise of the devalued fullback. The clip featured former Seattle Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson using game film to prove why the position is still needed.

Laskey is the first to admit fullbacks are a "dying breed."

"People don’t use the fullback as much," he says. "But you look at the teams who are successful, they all have fullbacks, and a solid running game."

To a certain extent, he’s right. If the Rams need any motivation to resurrect the fullback position, they can look to recent winners such as division rival Seattle and current world champion New England, both of which had traditional fullbacks on their roster last year. In fact, Tom Brady took time to praise fullback James Develin’s contribution to Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith, saying Develin is "the best fullback in the league," and that "he doesn’t get as much credit for it because he doesn’t get as many opportunities, but any time we call on him, he delivers."

And if the Rams want any more proof, they can look at their own coach’s history; Fisher’s sole trip to the Super Bowl came with Pro Bowl fullback Lorenzo Neal helping Eddie George on his way to a career high in rushing yards that season. This year, the Rams’ decision to draft Todd Gurley 10th overall seemed like a declaration that the running game isn’t dead, and that maybe, as a byproduct, the fullback would find a home again, too.

That is, until you talk to Fisher, who sounds like he isn’t sure at this point, either.

"We got the production out of Corey, we got the production at times out of Lance, and so we’re going to give Zach a chance to see, but both Corey and Lance, when they’re on the field, don’t necessarily have to line up as a fullback," Fisher says. "They can line up as a tight end. When you have someone like Zach there, he’s going to line up as a fullback, so you’re telling the defenses that you’re in a two-back set, and, OK, here we go."

In all likelihood, Fisher says, Laskey’s opportunity to make the roster will be heavily influenced by his ability to contribute on special teams. But the coach also likes what he sees from the rookie.

"He’s smart, he’s tough," Fisher says. "He’s an outstanding blocker."

Laskey will fight for the chance to prove all that on a pro roster this fall. There are a couple of hurdles, however, he must jump through first. One is learning the playbook. The other, adding weight.

"They want me to pick up a few more pounds," he said at the start of rookie camp in May. "I’m weighing in at 230 right now. I’d like to play around 240."

You can follow Elisabeth Meinecke on Twitter at @lismeinecke or email her at ecmeinecke@gmail.com.