I consider Patriots fullback James Develin to be an underrated part of the offense. Fullbacks that can run block, run on short yardage situations, pass block, and catch are a rare find and Develin was one of them. Right now there are conflicting reports for the time table of his recovery, which in those cases I typically err towards the longer road to recovery. What we do know is that Develin broke the tibia in his right leg and that he had surgery at a Charlotte hospital.
Here's former Chargers team doctor, now writing for Pro Football Talk, David Chao's opinion on what we're likely dealing with.
JAMES DEVELIN @Patriots rodding in Charlotte shows severity. Surgery on road rare. Indicates instability (as did airsplint). Likely IR.— David J. Chao, MD (@ProFootballDoc) August 29, 2015
@MikeReiss I hope so too, but not going to happen. Surgery in Charlotte indicates unstable. 4-6 months minimum based on my experience.— David J. Chao, MD (@ProFootballDoc) August 29, 2015
Upon researching medical information online for broken tibias, I believe that his recovery time is more in line with what Dr. Chao is reporting than the typical 6-8 weeks with a broken bone. We can hold out optimism that he'll be back in 12 weeks if the Patriots choose to give him the designated to return tag upon placing him on injured reserve, but I think he's out for the season.
Even with the skill set that Develin brought to the table, the reality is he was timesharing the 5th skill player spot with slot receiver Danny Amendola and tackle Cameron Fleming in 2014. In 2015, Scott Chandler and Reggie Wayne have been added to that mix. Losing Develin hurts most in the running game because he could execute a variety of blocking assignments, as either a lead blocker at the 2nd level, sealing an edge to create a cut-back lane, or execute a trap block in the backfield to free up offensive linemen to the 2nd level. The Patriots don't have a serviceable fullback on their roster to immediately replace him, nor do I think that Eric Kettani is the right answer. The Patriots are likely going to have to outsource the fullback position to a bunch of other players.
The absence of a fullback likely means the Patriots will operate more 2 and 3-tight end personnel. We know that Rob Gronkowski will be one of those TEs on the field and a good chance that Scott Chandler, Michael Hoomanawanui, and newly acquired Michael Williams will be one of those players in the extra TE sets. In terms of roster construction, the Patriots will likely replace Develin's roster spot with another TE and one who can lineup at both TE and FB. That's where the Williams trade comes into play. The Patriots probably didn't have this in mind when they initially traded for him, but it's a good thing they made that trade. Another wrinkle we might see is rookie Shaq Mason taking on a blocking fullback role, given his ability to move and block in space.
The Patriots can also improve their running game by spreading out the defense. That means 3 receiver sets that doesn't necessarily have to mean 3 WRs on the field with Gronk as the likely tight end and the Patriots attempt to trap their opponents into sub defenses. Opponents have to respect the arm of Tom Brady along with the Patriots receiving corps, which can match-up exploit a defense to death. Even those James Develin isn't a regular 3-down player, he provides a noticeable impact for the team. The Patriots aren't simply going to have one guy replace him, it's going to take a group effort from a bunch of unheralded players on the roster to fill that void. I'm going to miss the Tasmanian Develin (credit to Ben Volin for the nickname) for the 2015 season.