The 2015 New England Patriots ran the ball 383 times, tied for the 7th fewest in the entire league. Their 1,404 rushing yards and 3.67 yards per carry ranked 30th in the league. There were many problems, most notably the poor production out of the offensive line and the injuries to starting running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount.
But the offseason loss of FB James Develin to a broken leg remained an under-heralded injury all season- and his return in 2016 hasn’t received the fanfare it truly deserves.
In 2016, the Patriots ran the ball 482 times, the 3rd most in the league. Their 1,872 rushing yards ranked 7th, and while their 3.88 yards per carry ranked a below-average 24th, the Patriots rushing attack is clearly more reliable this season, particularly in short yardage situation where they improved from a 60.3% conversion rate to a 65.7% rate.
“I think as a fullback, [short yardage] is one of your roles where you’re, the spotlight’s on you,” Develin told Pats Pulpit. “You got to go out there and be the battering ram to get that yard. Our offensive line, our whole offense showed a lot of mental and physical toughness in those situations. We’ve had a lot of good preparation, good play down in those situations.”
Develin is regarded as one of the best fullbacks in the NFL, earning the second-highest fullback grade from Pro Football Focus. There is a major mental aspect of being a successful fullback that requires a player to make split-second decisions, and the Ivy League graduate is more than capable.
“I think there are a lot of things that come up that you can’t necessarily predict,” Develin said, “like line stunts, linebacker splits, stuff like that, so I think because I have a two, three yard head start on the running back that sometimes I have to make the decision whether to stick my foot in the ground and get up the field, or string the play out, or which hole to enter it in. There’s a lot of things that come up on any given play at any given time that you just kind of have to see and react, and hopefully it’s the right one and hopefully your back follows you.”
As defenses turn to lighter nickel defenses to defend against the high-flying passing attacks in the NFL, they remain more vulnerable to power rushing attacks, which points to a rebirth of the fullback position as a focal point of offenses. But as far as Develin is concerned, the fullback position never left.
“I think if you really look, there’s a pretty good amount of teams that still use the fullback,” Develin said. “In the divisional round I just took a note to look to see which teams still use a fullback and pretty much all of them did. Fullbacks are still out there if you look, we don’t primarily get used like a feature wide receiver or running back, but we’re out there and there’s a lot of good fullbacks out there doing a lot of good work.”
Develin is right, too. Jay Prosch (Texans), Anthony Sherman (Chiefs), Keith Smith (Cowboys), Marcel Reece (Seahawks), Roosevelt Nix (Steelers), Aaron Ripkowski (Packers), and Patrick DiMarco (Falcons) all played heavy snaps in 2016.
Probably not coincidentally, Falcons FB DiMarco (31.2% of offensive snaps) and Patriots FB Develin (31.3% of offensive snaps) played the most of all the fullbacks and will be opposite sidelines in the Super Bowl. Only Ravens FB Kyle Juszczyk (40.8%) played more than Develin and DiMarco all season, in part because Juszczyk is an actual threat to catch the ball as a receiver.
“I think [fullback is] going to be monumental moving forward in this league,” DiMarco said. “It’s not the most glorifying position, it’s nothing that’s talked about a lot, but what we do, we’re not really making the big plays, but you’re a part of the big plays.”
DiMarco also had kind words to share about Develin’s ability on the field.
“He’s a great player,” DiMarco said. “He’s a big thumper. What I’m really impressed with him is how he sustains blocks. If he locks his arm, you’re not going to get off. That’s something that I try and work on myself, and I find that he does it very well.”
Develin is going to play a major role in the Super Bowl as the Patriots will aim to run against the smaller Falcons defense. If he’s able to lock on to the 220-odd pound Falcons defenders and not let go, then Blount and Lewis should be able to attack the second level of the Atlanta defense at will- and Develin will no longer be flying under the radar.