Patriots

Patriots

Danny Vitale was not a lock to make the Patriots roster. His one-year contract with New England included just $100,000 in guarantees. But as an athletic fullback option, he was an intriguing piece for Josh McDaniels to get his hands on.

As it turns out, Vitale won't be taking the field as part of a post-Tom Brady attack in 2020. Due to COVID-19 concerns, Vitale opted out of the season. Still, that doesn't mean the fullback spot in the Patriots offense will disappear.

One option? Jakob Johnson remains on the roster after spending the early portion of 2019 as the No. 2 fullback behind James Develin until he (like Develin) ended up on injured reserve mid-season. Johnson measures in at 6-foot-3, 255 pounds and appears best suited to handle the between-the-tackles hammer role Develin occupied before he retired.

The other choices are rookies.

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Dalton Keene looks like a capable "H-back" as a type of fullback-tight end hybrid. In that sense, he might benefit most from Vitale's decision not to play in 2020.

That appeared to be the role Vitale was going to take on. About 15 pounds lighter than Develin, and testing as an elite athlete coming out of Northwestern, Vitale was not the same type of player as the man who preceded him at the fullback position in Foxboro. Vitale's promise -- in addition to his blocking ability -- was in his speed to threaten linebackers and his athleticism to align in different spots. 

 

Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur hoped to utilize Vitale last season as his version of Kyle Juszczyk, who has become a key component to Kyle Shanahan's offenses in San Francisco. (LaFleur and Shanahan worked together in Washington and Atlanta.) That role would've been a fascinating one in McDaniels' scheme . . . and maybe it still will be even with Vitale out. Those duties could fall to Keene.

A third-round choice out of Virginia Tech, Keene was often used as a lead blocker out of the backfield in Virginia Tech's offense. And while he has the size (6-foot-4, 253 pounds) to potentially replicate the muscle Develin gave the Patriots, Keene's athleticism gives him the ability to be used as a dynamic receiving weapon.

Keene -- a former high school quarterback -- certainly showed off an ability to create yards on his own after the catch in college, averaging 9.7 yards after the catch per reception in his career, per Pro Football Focus. He also tested as an impressive athlete at this year's combine, having recorded a 125-inch broad jump (94th percentile for tight ends) and a 4.19 short shuttle (85th).

Fellow third-round choice Devin Asiasi is another player who could end up in the backfield for the Patriots in 2020. His tight ends coach at UCLA Derek Sage told The Next Pats Podcast that Asiasi has the kind of versatility that may allow a coach or general manager to carry two roles -- tight end and fullback -- on the roster with one player. 

Asiasi's trainer, who has also worked with Zach Ertz and Austin Hooper, told NBC Sports Boston there's no doubt Asiasi's athletic ability could make him a rare talent in the NFL. Asiasi's aggressive blocking style and 6-foot-3, 257-pound frame make him a natural for fullback responsibilities.  "He can do it all, I think," texted one AFC tight ends coach when asked about Asiasi's projected role in the Patriots offense. 

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But those same physical traits might make him the team's top tight end early in his career and therefore limit his chances out of the backfield. Both Asiasi and Keene -- players the Patriots traded up in the draft to acquire back in the spring -- will be in the running to succeed veterans Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo as the top tight ends in New England.

 

The Patriots also kept an undrafted rookie tight end Jake Burt after releasing 10 players over the weekend to get their roster down to 80. The Boston College product is listed at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds and looks like a classic blocking tight end. If he makes the team, though, that might not be his only job. He could potentially take on some fullback.

As Bill Belichick has noted in the past, those two positions share many of the same responsibilities, and in New England the fullbacks meet with the tight ends on a daily basis. Patriots tight ends coach Nick Caley had the fullbacks duties to his title as he's now the "tight ends/fullbacks" coach, per a Monday announcement

Vitale, whose contract with the Patriots will toll to 2021, was an intriguing piece for McDaniels to maneuver this coming season. Would he be the lead-blocking, play-action weapon Juszczyk has become on the West Coast? Would he give a Cam Newton-led running game a different wrinkle to confound opposing offenses? 

We'll never know how Vitale would've fit this year. But just because he's opted out doesn't mean McDaniels and the Patriots can't try to accomplish whatever they had in mind for the fullback position with others still sitting on the roster.