The New England Patriots’ latest plan to replace James Develin was scuttled Monday.
Veteran newcomer Danny Vitale, who’d been viewed as Develin’s likely successor at fullback since signing with New England in March, has chosen to opt out of the 2020 NFL season due to COVID-19 concerns, his agent, Leigh Steinberg, told Jarrett Bell of USA Today.
Vitale was the first in a growing list of Patriots players to opt out. Within the next 24 hours, guard Najee Toran, tackle Marcus Cannon, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and running back Brandon Bolden all had followed suit.
The Patriots utilize the fullback more than almost any team in the NFL, and Vitale’s decision again leaves them without a proven option at the position.
New England faced this same quandary last season after Develin suffered a neck injury that ultimately led to his retirement. Jakob Johnson, a rookie placed with the Patriots through the NFL’s International Pathway Program, initially filled his shoes but suffered his own season-ending injury four weeks later, forcing Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels to assign lead-blocking duties to linebacker Elandon Roberts. Roberts, who hadn’t played offense since Pop Warner, performed admirably, but the Patriots’ running game sputtered without Develin’s powerful presence.
To whom will the Patriots turn this time?
The obvious next man up is Johnson, who’s now healthy and remains under contract. The 25-year-old German exceeded Belichick’s admittedly low expectations last season — the coach didn’t think he’d even make the practice squad — but has minimal NFL experience, logging just 71 offensive snaps in four career regular-season appearances.
Johnson’s most notable highlight to date came in last year’s preseason when he flattened a Tennessee Titans defender on a Brandon Bolden touchdown run.
Even with Vitale out of the picture, we wouldn’t consider Johnson a lock to make the 53-man roster. One player who undoubtedly will be on the team is third-round draft pick Dalton Keene, and though Keene is listed as a tight end, the rookie could help fill New England’s newly formed fullback void.
Keene, a former high school running back, played H-back at Virginia Tech. Renowned for his tenacious blocking and run-after-catch ability, he lined up all over the formation, frequently served as a lead blocker, looked comfortable catching passes out of the backfield and even logged 11 carries in 2019.
Vitale, himself a college H-back, was projected to play a Kyle Juszczyk-esque role for the Patriots, providing more versatility and pass-catching ability than the highly effective but largely one-dimensional Develin. Keene isn’t built like a typical fullback — at a lean 6-foot-4, 251 pounds, he’s four inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than Vitale — but he has the skill set to handle those duties.
Keene and Johnson, who played tight end before entering the NFL, trained together during the leadup to Patriots training camp.
Even if Vitale hadn’t opted out, there’s a good chance Keene, whom the Patriots traded up to select, would have seen some fullback-type opportunities as the Patriots reshape the way they use the position. During his introductory conference call in May, Vitale mentioned Keene alongside Johnson and fellow rookie tight ends Jake Burt (undrafted) and Devin Asiasi (third round) as players who “might be in that role” this season.
Emphasizing the potential crossover between the two position groups, the Patriots on Monday announced Nick Caley will serve as their tight ends/fullbacks coach for 2020. The battle for Develin’s old job will begin in earnest when the pads come on in mid-August.