The New England Patriots actually surprised themselves when fullback Jakob Johnson worked his way up to earn a spot on the team’s 53-man roster.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged Johnson, a native of Germany and a member of the NFL’s international pathway program, was the team’s “91st person on the roster” when he initially was added. But the Patriots made a revealing step when they added Johnson to their practice squad without an exception as he cleared waivers out of training camp.

If the Patriots had accepted an exception for Johnson, he would have been an additional member of the Patriots’ practice squad, but he could not be signed onto the active roster. By rejecting the exception, Johnson was eligible to be signed to the active roster, which happened when starting fullback James Develin was placed on injured reserve with a neck injury.

Johnson only lasted four games before being placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, but it was an impressive ascent for a player the Patriots would not have signed had he not been part of the NFL’s international program.

“Back in the spring, I don’t think anybody ever envisioned him being on the roster at that point, or even being on the practice squad, to tell you the truth,” Belichick said in September. “But he continued to get better, and certainly his physicality and his toughness showed up in the preseason games and in the preseason practices against Detroit and Tennessee. …

“What he’s done has been remarkable. And in a relatively short period of time, but he works extremely hard. … He puts literally every ounce of energy he has into this job and our team, and he’s totally earned everybody’s respect. And for that, you know, he’s a young player, he’s got a long way to go, there’s a lot of room for improvement, but he works very hard at it.”

Now Johnson will enter the offseason as the Patriots’ backup fullback. It’s unlikely Johnson will beat out Develin, barring injury, but it’s also unlikely a team will try to claim Johnson. So, the Patriots very well could store their backup fullback on the practice squad to start the 2020 season. Last season showed why a backup fullback is so important. After Develin and Johnson went down, the Patriots used linebacker Elandon Roberts, center James Ferentz, running back Brandon Bolden and tight ends in the lead blocking role.

The Patriots have to hope for better health for Develin and Johnson in 2020.

Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images