Last fall, as we all squabbled about what ailed the Patriots offense – or if it was really even ailing at all – the loss of fullback James Develin would be mentioned but usually as an afterthought.
Tom Brady’s impatience, Marshall Newhouse’s ineptitude, David Andrews’ absence, N’Keal Harry’s ankle, Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, Sony Michel’s sense of direction – you’d hear plenty about them. But Develin? The former All-Pro was mostly just mentioned in passing after a neck injury sidelined him and ultimately forced his retirement.
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Meanwhile, the Patriots were trying like hell to find someone to clear some space for their running game.
I maintained then and do still that the combo losses of Dwayne Allen, Gronkowski and Develin doomed the Patriots offense.
When a team goes from highly effective to barely effective on the ground, the trickle-down is profound. Especially on a team without a few high-end athletes that can “win” simply because they are more physically gifted than the players trying to stop them.
Even with Allen, Gronkowski and Develin in 2018, the Patriots offense struggled to find an identity. But when the team lost back-to-back games to Miami and Pittsburgh and lost Josh Gordon after the Steelers game, the commitment to bludgeoning was joined. And Develin was the blunt-force instrument.
He was on the field more than 40 percent of the time in seven of the Patriots final nine games. He was never on the field less than 32 percent of the snaps. He was on the field for 42 percent of the snaps in the AFC Championship and Super Bowl.
Last year, after he was injured, the team tried to replace him with Jakob Johnson – a player who was only on the roster because of the NFL’s International Pathway Program. Johnson wasn’t too bad either. But when he got hurt, the team then started asking linebacker Elandon Roberts to do it. Roberts hated it. But he did it. And he was effective at times. But he wasn’t Develin.
The Patriots went into this offseason knowing their duct-tape and glue solutions at both tight end and fullback cost them. So they did something about it. Which brings us to … Danny Vitale. He is a fullback. But he’s not Develin. And his presence and how the Patriots plan to use him is very intriguing.
At 6-feet, 239-pounds, the 26-year-old is smaller than the 6-3, 255-pound Develin. He also has been mostly a special teamer since coming into the league as a sixth-round pick of the Buccaneers. In two years each with the Browns and Packers, he’s played a total of 635 special teams snaps and 396 offensive snaps. He has carried the ball once in his NFL career.
The busiest he’s been was last year in Green Bay, catching seven of the 12 balls sent his way for 27 yards.
He’s actually more of a hybrid TE/fullback than your basic neckrolled road-grader. At Northwestern, he caught 135 balls for 1,427 yards and 11 touchdowns and his highlights from there are nothing but catches
And that changes the tight end room a bit. With Johnson returning (he’s 6-3, 255 like Develin was), the Patriots may have their battering ram. With Vitale, they get a player they can use in a variety of ways if he’s up to it: lead blocker, third-tackle, detached as a receiver, conventional tight end.
He is – like Adrian Phillips on the defensive side who we profiled earlier in the week – a guy with multiple possibilities. Unlike Phillips, though, he is a projection.
The ideal projection? A Patriots version of the Niners' Kyle Jusczyk, a Pro Bowler each of the last four years who’s caught 83 balls in 42 games for 878 yards in San Fran and is similarly sized.
Rob Demovsky, who covers the Packers for ESPN, is puzzled why that didn’t happen with Vitale in Green Bay.
“In training camp last year they used him all over the field to catch balls: in the flat, in the slot and down the sideline,” Demovsky explained. “He showed he could catch anything. And then during the season they barely used him that way, why he was odd. Go look at the 27-yarder he caught against the Broncos (a modified wheel route down the seam that went for a touchdown). Why didn’t they do more of that? As a blocker, he’s your typical fullback. But he sets himself apart with his ability to catch.”
It is an ability so far untapped in the NFL. If the Patriots can get some of that plus a little bit of what they lost when Develin was lost, they will have something.