FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney form an outstanding one-two running punch for the New England Patriots. Kevin Faulk is a reliable receiver out of the backfield.

Then there’s the team’s other back – a strong man who works in obscurity at a position that has shifted from the NFL spotlight to the shadows.

Heath Evans, fullback, knows his role.

He blocks, catches an occasional pass and gets to run with the ball once in a while.

“I love it, too,” he said.

Once, fullbacks gained lots of yards. Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Franco Harris are among the NFL’s top 11 rushers. But as the seasons passed into history, so did that role. Now teams use fullbacks to block – if they don’t assign a tight end to line up in the backfield for that job.

“It’s a position that’s really kind of fallen by the wayside where a lot of teams feel like they can plug a tight end in there when you go to a two-back set,” Evans said Wednesday. “It saves you a roster spot to carry another lineman, to carry another tackle, to carry another linebacker.”

Coach Bill Belichick said the shift away from fullbacks carrying the ball resulted from a desire to have the best runner do that and the best blocker clear the way for him.

“So now that blocker, the fullback, is probably closer to a pulling guard in a lot of cases than he is a tailback,” Belichick said.

In his sixth NFL season, Evans finally scored his first touchdown last Sunday on a 1-yard pass from Tom Brady in a 20-10 win over Miami, his former team.

“I know Zach Thomas is streaming around the corner getting ready to smack me,” Evans said. “I was more excited about thinking in my head, “OK, now this game is getting ready to be 20-10. It’s pretty much over.’ “

One week earlier, the 5-foot-11, 250-pound Evans performed his more customary role in a 38-13 win at Cincinnati.

On an 11-yard touchdown run by Maroney that put the Patriots ahead 7-6, Evans blocked a linebacker at the 5-yard line, giving Maroney just enough room to race into the left corner of the end zone.

Then, on Corey Dillon’s 1-yard run that made it 31-13, Evans charged into the pile and blocked another linebacker as Dillon ran off his left side and scored standing up.

“Most of the time when I put my hand in the dirt and I know my block depends on whether this play is successful or unsuccessful, I’m really confident I’m going to get this done,” Evans said.

It wasn’t always that way. As a sophomore at Auburn, he led the team in rushing.

But as a senior, he blocked for current Bengal Rudi Johnson. And when Seattle drafted him in the third round in 2001, he knew they wanted him to block, but they already had Mack Strong doing that.

“He was a phenomenal blocker, never misses one,” Evans said. “So to break into that lineup and show the things that I’ve been able to show here was difficult.”

After rushing for 108 yards in four seasons with Seattle, he signed as a free agent with the Dolphins, the team he rooted for growing up in West Palm Beach.

“It was a dream come true,” Evans said. “You get a new regime, kind of a fresh start for everybody. I felt like it was a good time to move into that system. I was wrong.”

He played six games under new coach Nick Saban before being released. He signed with the Patriots on Nov. 1 and played seven games with them, one in the playoffs.

“It sounds a little corny, but there’s a warmth here in this locker room,” he said. “That’s a rarity and I think it makes this team special.”

Belichick doesn’t exactly project that warmth in public but does appreciate Evans.

“He’s a smart guy. He’s good on blitz pickup. He’s a very good, all-around versatile player who can run, who can block, who can catch and play in the kicking game,” Belichick said. “It’s kind of hard to find guys like that.”

Last season with the Patriots, Evans rushed for 192 yards, more than doubling his career total, and caught a career-high 10 passes. This year he’s carried the ball only 8 times for 15 yards and caught just 2 passes for 11 yards.

He’d like to run more, but he’s worked so hard at becoming a good blocker that he enjoys doing that.

His role “is all based on what these coaches see on a week-to-week basis, what works and what doesn’t,” Evans said. “It’s not like, “hey, we’re going to feed Heath the ball because we’re appreciative of him blocking.’ “

Besides, the Patriots have Dillon, Maroney and Faulk and “I am not that caliber” of runner, Evans said.

But he is a fullback.


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