The New England Patriots must forge ahead without their bruising three-time Super Bowl champion fullback.
James Develin announced his retirement Monday. The former Ivy League fullback injured his neck last season and spent most of the year on injured reserve. The Patriots’ rushing attack was not the same without Develin, averaging .5 fewer yards per carry compared to the 2018 season. Patriots starting running back Sony Michel averaged 4.5 yards per carry with Develin in his rookie season and 3.7 yards per carry in 2019 while Develin was on injured reserve.
Losing starting center David Andrews and tight end Rob Gronkowski also hurt the ground game. German fullback Jakob Johnson initially filled in for Develin before hitting injured reserve himself. The Patriots made do with what they had, utilizing linebacker Elandon Roberts, running back Brandon Bolden, offensive lineman James Ferentz and their tight ends as part-time lead blockers.
The Patriots are better prepared to play without Develin this season, however. They have Johnson returning from his injury, plus they signed veteran free-agent fullback Danny Vitale.
The Patriots drafted two tight ends this weekend, and third-rounder Dalton Keene has some experience playing out of the backfield.
“Not as a fullback, but kind of an off-the-ball, sometimes a fullback location, but not really lined up behind the quarterback, but lined in the backfield, off the lines,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Saturday. “A little bit of a different location than what we would normally use.”
Johnson, Vitale and Keene likely won’t be as consistent as lead blockers, but they are more athletic than Develin. The Patriots frequently split Develin out at wide receiver to get a tell on the opposing defense’s strategy. Players like Vitale and Keene could actually do some damage as receivers in that role because of their speed and receiving ability. Develin caught just 31 passes for 222 yards in seven seasons with the Patriots.
The Patriots might have to rely on their rushing attack more this season, however, with Tom Brady signed away by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer are competing for the starting quarterback job. It would be surprising if either passer produced as well as Brady in what was a down season for the legendary quarterback, completing 60.8 percent of his passes for 4,057 yards with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
The Patriots seemingly will have to count upon Michel and their stable of running backs that also includes Bolden, James White, Rex Burkhead and Damien Harris more heavily. The Patriots also signed undrafted free agent running back J.J. Taylor this weekend. A ground-and-pound attack will be tough without Develin leading the way.
A fullback’s retirement wouldn’t cause such a ripple for most NFL teams. But losing Develin was a fairly large splash in the Patriots pond last season. They were smart to plan ahead by signing Vitale with Develin’s status uncertain heading into the offseason. Now we’ll just have to wait and see how the Northwestern product can fare replacing a Patriots cult hero.