James Develin

Stephen Gostkowski's injury could have created difficult choice for the Patriots

Stephen Gostkowski's injury could have created difficult choice for the Patriots

FOXBORO -- Stephen Gostkowski's injury very nearly made an already difficult decision for the Patriots even more difficult.

Per NFL rules, each of the league's 32 clubs is able to return two players off of injured reserve and onto their active roster. (Last year, in New England, the two who returned off of IR were running back Rex Burkhead and Duke Dawson.) 

The Patriots had three players on injured reserve who could potentially return: N'Keal Harry, Isaiah Wynn and James Develin before news of Stephen Gostkowski's injury. 

It was reported by the Boston Globe on Wednesday afternoon that Gostkowski was headed to IR. The Patriots worked out kickers inside Gillette Stadium on Wednesday afternoon.

All four of those players on New England's IR -- not including those placed on IR before the roster cut-down to 53 players, like David Andrews, who aren't eligible to return -- could conceivably make a big impact if they are brought back. All will not be able to practice until they've been out for six weeks. They will be able to play after being out for eight weeks.

Choosing two would have been difficult if Gostkowski made the number four. Would he be more valuable as a returnee than a big-bodied receiver? Or a fullback? Or a left tackle? It all would've depended on his replacement fares.

But according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Gostkowski will have hip surgery and will miss the entire season. He won't be healthy enough to return, so that will make the Patriots' decision easier (although they'd probably like to have Gostkowski's services this year).  

Still, the Patriots choice could be difficult even without Gostkowski. Here are the pros and cons of each one of their three choices. 

WR N'Keal Harry: The rookie wideout was banged-up for much of training camp and couldn't get healthy after suffering a couple of different injuries in Detroit. He'll have plenty of time to get healthy and he should provide the Patriots with an outside-the-numbers, contested-catch presence upon return. Even if he runs a limited route tree, even if he will have missed a month's worth of practices, and even if Brady is reluctant to use young receivers, he should give a thin position group a boost. He can return in Week 9. 

LT Isaiah Wynn: Wynn didn't get very far into his second season as a pro before suffering another long-term injury. He missed all of his rookie season with a torn Achilles and then suffered a foot injury in Miami that sent him to IR. In the short time that Wynn was healthy and no longer recuperating from his Achilles injury, he looked light on his feet and powerful enough to hold up against bull-rushing pass-rushers. If he can get back to that form, bringing him back off of IR would seem to be a no-doubter. Left tackle is one of the most valuable positions on any roster, and while Marshall Newhouse has given the Patriots a good effort there in Wynn's absence, Wynn's return would qualify as an upgrade.

FB James Develin: Develin's presence on the field made a world of difference to the Patriots in 2018. Their 21-personnel (two backs, one tight end) groupings were the team's most efficient both when they elected to run and when they elected to pass during the postseason run that resulted in a sixth Lombardi Trophy. The Patriots weren't as effective with a fullback on the field in the two weeks Develin was healthy enough to play this year, but he was still a major component to the team's running game and special teams units. Dealing with a neck injury, there's no certainty that Develin will be able to return. But even with the running game looking for all the help it can get this season, having the fullback back doesn't at this point seem like it would rise to the top of the list of IR-return options. 

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James Develin injury may force Patriots to abandon most efficient plays from Super Bowl 53 run

James Develin injury may force Patriots to abandon most efficient plays from Super Bowl 53 run

No one would look at the loss of James Develin to injured reserve and say the New England Patriots just lost one of their five most important players offensively. But Bill Belichick would be the first to tell you just how much value his fullback of the last five seasons brings to the roster.

"We're fortunate to have one James Develin on our team," Belichick said Tuesday on a conference call. "He works extremely hard. He's a versatile player that does things for us offensively and in the kicking game. Very dependable and has a lot of experience in our system. We're lucky to have him.

"To have two of him and be able to replace him with another James Develin is just unrealistic . . . There's no one person who can do what he does."

Part of what Develin did for the Patriots is that he allowed them to use section of their playbook that might not be available to them otherwise. At the very least, those pages won't be turned to quite as frequently with Develin out.

In 2018, Develin played in 36.3 percent of his team's offensive snaps. Many of those were spent as one of the centerpieces of their 21-personnel packages.

With another back -- often Sony Michel -- and a tight end on the field, Develin was primarily used as the lead blocker to clear out defender bodies on rush attempts. He blocked for another ball-carrier on 68.2 percent of his snaps last season, making his role one that teammates and coaches alike lauded as representative of the kind of tough and physical identity they hope to achieve on a yearly basis.

"James is a special guy," Josh McDaniels said Tuesday. "He certainly plays a very valuable role in our offense and he has a lot to do with our success when he's on the field.

" . . . He provides a toughness and a leadership and a physicality that we love around here. He's a great person, great worker, great attitude. Always a positive contributor to our performance offensively. You're not just going to plug in somebody and replace that."

If he's truly irreplaceable -- the Patriots currently have one other fullback, Jakob Johnson, who arrived to the team initially via the NFL's International Player Pathway program -- then it would be reasonable to deduce that the team may have to abandon the heavy 21-personnel groupings of which Develin was a key part last season. Of course, the Patriots have proven that they can be efficient out of the league's most popular personnel grouping, "11," and this season they've turned to more "10" and "20" packages as they've relied on their receiver and running back depth.

But with Develin in the fold last season, "21" helped the Patriots offense function at an optimal level during the most important stretch of their season. In the playoffs, the Patriots rushed for 5.3 yards per carry out of "21" and they threw for 8.7 yards per attempt. That was better than what they got from their three-receiver 11-personnel packages (4.0 yards per carry, 7.6 yards per attempt), as well as their 12-personnel groupings (4.8 yards per carry, 6.5 yards per attempt).

With a versatile "21" grouping that was able to catch teams off-guard by passing out of run-heavy looks yet still run when the opposition expected it, the Patriots out-gained their postseason opponents by 544 yards and possessed the football for an average of 38 minutes 30 seconds over three games.

It should come as no surprise that during the playoffs, "21" was the team's second-favorite package behind "11." McDaniels called for it 64 times and relied on "22" (two backs, two tight ends) 37 more. Develin played 98 total snaps against the Chargers, Chiefs and Rams in January and February, which was his busiest three-game stretch outside of Weeks 12-14, which saw him play 101 snaps.

During the 2018 season, the Patriots ran for 4.5 yards per carry out of "21," but later in the year, as the team embraced a new emphasis on the running game, that number improved. After their Week 11 bye, the Patriots averaged 5.1 yards per carry out of "21." In goal-line situations (from three yards and in) after the bye, the Patriots rushed for eight touchdowns on 11 attempts in two-back formations.

Even the pass game was more efficient out of "21" after the bye week. They were at their best through the air with that grouping, averaging a whopping 8.4 yards per attempt, which was slightly better than the more receiver-heavy 11-personnel grouping (8.1 yards per attempt).

Just because Develin will miss at least eight weeks on IR with a neck injury doesn't mean the Patriots offense will tank. They'll adapt. They'll go as players like Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon and James White go. They'll go as their offensive line goes.

"The goal for us is not to replicate what we did last year," McDaniels said. "It's to try to figure out how we can be the best version of ourselves this year with the personnel that we have playing and available to us for us each week this season."

What Develin's injury does, though, is potentially reduce the team's margin for error. The Patriots were already without David Andrews and Isaiah Wynn before Develin landed on IR. The team still doesn't have a consistent answer at tight end following Rob Gronkowski's retirement.

They've scored 106 points through three games, but they're 25th in the league in rushing in terms of yards per attempt, and Belichick acknowledged before Develin's IR designation that "at some point, we're going to need to improve our running game."

Develin's presence gave the Patriots access to a section of their playbook that helped make them extremely efficient offensively -- both running and passing -- en route to their sixth Lombardi Trophy. Moving forward without him means their options will be a little more limited unless they can piece together his role with other players.

"Is it one person? I mean, I doubt it," Belichick said. "Is it a combination of people on or off the roster? That's really the conversation and so then you go from there."

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James Develin injury highlights uphill climb for Patriots running game: 'At some point we're going to need to improve'

James Develin injury highlights uphill climb for Patriots running game: 'At some point we're going to need to improve'

Bill Belichick usually doesn't want to talk about balance. He doesn't care if the Patriots score by throwing the football or running it. They've had games with Belichick at the helm where they've thrown it 50 times and won. They've had games where they've run it over and over and over again and won.

But the Patriots are currently the fifth-worst team in football when it comes to their yards-per-carry average. They averaged less than three yards per carry against the Jets on Sunday. And while they've scored 106 points in three games, their running game has not been close to the efficient option it was late last season.

Even Belichick would acknowledge his team is going to need more from its running game.

"It comes down to team execution and that includes everybody," Belichick said. "It includes the point-of-attack blockers, the backside blockers, all of the perimeter players, tight ends, receivers and possibly a lead back or not a lead back."

The Patriots were at their best with a lead back -- or fullback -- last season, averaging over five yards per carry following their bye when they deployed their 21 personnel grouping. They embraced a physical running style with two backs in the backfield, but that aspect of the running game could be significantly dialed back with James Develin placed on injured reserve. 

Now, with Jakob Johnson in for Develin, left tackle Marshall Newhouse in for Isaiah Wynn (also on IR) and Ted Karras in for David Andrews (on IR), the Patriots are going to have to try to become a more potent rushing attack with backups helping to lead the charge.

On Sunday against the Jets, as Belichick referenced, the mistakes in the run game were widespread. Sony Michel ran nine times for 11 yards and had runs blown up due to missed blocks by everyone from Joe Thuney, to Shaq Mason, to Newhouse, to Karras, to tight end Ryan Izzo and receivers Phillip Dorsett and Josh Gordon. 

"Each play is its own entity," Belichick said. "The blocking and the reading of the blocks and all that, even though you run the same play over and over again, and that's why some coaches, and rightfully so, just believe in repetition, repetition, repetition. Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler and guys like that – run the same play over and over and over again for year after year but each play is a little bit different.

"The recognition and the timing between the blockers and the runner and the defense and the leverage they have and the space that's created is different on every play. It's the same – there's a general framework, but it's different on every play.

"We just have to do a better job of executing our running game and just trying to get a little more production out of it, but in the end if we can throw the ball and move the ball and score points, that's fine too if that's what's available. At some point, we're going to need to improve our running game and so we'll keep working on it."

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