During the second quarter of Super Bowl LIV, a San Francisco 49ers player lined up on the right wing, ran a crisp return route, caught a pass in the flat, broke a tackle, maneuvered around a block and dove over the goal line for a 15-yard touchdown.
That player wasn’t George Kittle or Emmanuel Sanders. It wasn’t any Niners tight end or wideout.
It was fullback Kyle Juszczyk, showing the world what players at his position are capable of in the modern NFL.
Juszczyk nearly scored again later in San Francisco’s 31-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. He finished with three catches on three targets for 39 yards — more than former New England Patriots fullback James Develin tallied during his entire Pro Bowl season in 2017.
That’s no knock on Develin, whose work as an old-school, neck-rolled lead blocker landed him a spot on the Patriots’ 2010s All-Decade Team. Juszczyk is simply a different breed of fullback — one that still clears holes for running backs but also boasts athleticism and legit receiving ability.
So is Danny Vitale, who will be tasked with replacing the now-retired Develin in New England.
Vitale, a fifth-year pro who’s logged stints in Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Green Bay, views the versatile Juszczyk as a role model.
“He’s kind of the prime example of what a lot of teams are moving towards,” Vitale said Thursday in a video call with reporters. “Obviously, every offense is different, but he’s been able to do, obviously, a lot of great things since his career in Baltimore and now all the way into San Fran. So he’s kind of the player that I like to model my game after in terms of the versatility aspect. … I think he’s a good guy to look up to.”
That’s not to say Vitale immediately will provide Juszczyk-level production for the Patriots. The latter has tallied 20-plus catches and 200-plus receiving yards in each of the last five seasons and averaged 12.0 yards per reception in 2019. Vitale has 15 catches for 145 yards and zero touchdowns in his entire NFL career.
Vitale did show flashes of playmaking ability with the Packers last season, however, hauling in three 20-plus-yard receptions from quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Expect Josh McDaniels, one of the NFL’s most creative offensive coordinators, to scheme up new ways to get Vitale involved in the Patriots’ passing game.
Under McDaniels’ direction, even the more limited Develin tallied career highs in targets (17) and catches (12) in his final full season in 2018.
“I think my abilities with the ball in my hands — that’s a huge advantage, I think, in my style of play, being able to be a playmaker when you need it,” Vitale said. “I think it showed a little bit last year, as well, in Green Bay, and I’m looking forward to hopefully getting some more opportunities to do that here in the near future.
“I will say at the end of the day, too — it kind of comes with the territory as a fullback — but kind of being the tough guy and having that mentality is important, and that’s something I feel like I can bring, as well. I’ll do any job that they ask me to do. I’ll play hard every single play, and I’ll do it to the best of my ability.”
— Green Bay Packers (@packers) September 22, 2019
Listed at 6 feet, 239 pounds, Vitale is three inches shorter and more than 15 pounds lighter than the hard-charging Develin. At the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine, he tested in the 90th percentile or higher for fullbacks in the 40-yard dash (91st), broad jump (95th), vertical jump (96th), short shuttle (91st) and bench press (91st).
Vitale played a position called “superback” in college at Northwestern — a blend of fullback, H-back, tight end and receiver — and caught 135 passes for 1,427 yards and 11 touchdowns over four seasons. He’s filled multiple NFL rules since entering the league as a Buccaneers sixth-round draft pick.
“I kind of had to learn to play as a different type of fullback in different types of offenses over the last couple years,” Vitale explained. “Jumping around a little bit. When I was in Tampa Bay, I was more of a tight end/wing-type player. Then in Cleveland, (I) was kind of a hand-to-the-ground, bruising type fullback. And then in my time in Green Bay, I did a little bit of both. I was kind of all over the field. They would split me out a little bit, catching passes out of the backfield, being a running back at times — a protection back.
“So I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned about my style over the last couple of years is being able to be versatile and try to use my intelligence to the best of my ability, learn as much as I can, learn as many spots as I can, so whenever they need somebody to step in, I can fill that role.”
Asked why he chose to sign with New England when he hit free agency this past March, Vitale pointed to “all the amazing things that James Develin did over the last couple years.”
“Obviously, that’s enticing for a fullback,” the 26-year-old said. “… I definitely have some really big shoes to fill, but I’m really looking for that opportunity.”
The Patriots also added another H-back type this offseason in third-round draft pick Dalton Keene, one of four rookie tight ends on their roster.