FOXBORO – What did the Patriots lose in 2015 when fullback James Develin blew his ACL during the preseason?
On that play from the AFC Championship against the Colts. Develin lines up as the offset right fullback in front of LeGarrette Blount on a second-and-goal from the 2. First, the Patriots motion tight end Michael Hoomanawanui from left to the outside the right numbers, making Indy – which was in goal line zone defense – send a safety lined up in front of Develin outside the numbers as well. Then they motioned Tim Wright – who was off the line to Develin’s right – motioning back the other way, dragging another safety back across the field. Before Indy was set, Tom Brady took the snap and flipped it to Develin at the doorstep of the goal line. D’Qwell Jackson – coming from his inside linebacker spot – diagnosed the play well but Develin was too thick and strong to bring to the ground with a mere collision. He kept his feet churning, lost Jackson and dove in for the score.
The absence of Develin a fullback with excellent lead-blocking skills and a smooth receiver skills wasn’t something we spoke much about last year. Maybe that was because Dion Lewis was so electric in the early-going, we all forgot about the power game.
But having Develin around may have changed the Patriots’ decision-making in key situations. Maybe the Patriots could have gotten more than 14 carries and 31 yards from Brandon Bolden, James White and Steven Jackson in the AFC title game in Denver. Or on the failed fourth-and-1 from the Denver 16 in the fourth quarter when Chris Harris sniffed out the play to Julian Edelman.
Develin’s back now. Bill Belichick seems pleased.
“He’s done everything since the beginning of the offseason,” Belichick said Sunday before practice. “He hasn’t been limited in any way. James is great to have on the team. He’s a great teammate, he has a lot of great attributes. His toughness. Catches the ball well, very smart.”
Develin plays a position that isn’t often utilized in the NFL. But when it is, it’s in moments that matter.
Those are the kinds of things the New England coaching staff will consider when putting together the roster, said Belichick.
“Just like any role or situation, how many can you have and which ones are the most important to you?” he asked rhetorically. “He’s effective in his role it’s a question of, eventually, when you put together your team how big are various roles relative to other roles? What’s the overall contribution of the player in all facets of the team, offense, defense, special teams, situational football. Situations like goal line and short yardage are pretty important situations so they may carry a little more weight than other situations. In the end we’ll have to see how it all plays out but he’s certainly very competitive with what he does.”
The Patriots were able to utilize extra blockers in short-yardage and goal line last season but, as Belichick pointed out, it was most often with blocking tight end Mike Williams, who tore his ACL and is on IR for 2016.
“Mike Williams was a comparable player for us last year as a line of scrimmage blocking player, James is more of an off-the-line player,” Belichick explained. “I don’t know ho wmany of those players you can have on the field at the same time. Mike played a lot of plays for us – 400 or somewhere in that neighborhood. He played a lot of plays as the blocking tight end. Different position, same role. I don’t think you want to have two or three of those players out there at the same time unless it’s short yardage.”
With Williams down, the main competition for Develin is probably Bear Pascoe, also a tight end. The advantage Develin holds is he can also occasionally carry the ball at fullback, providing another dimension Pascoe won’t.
It’s a dimension the Patriots definitely missed in 2015.