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How fullback James Develin gives the Patriots a winning edge

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James Develin is mostly known for his devastating work as a blocker, but he wears more hats for New England than you may expect.

NFL: New England Patriots at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Belichick’s preparation and attention to detail are the stuff of legend – or nightmares, depending on what side of the sword you’re on. The Hoodie understands that success in the NFL is a wild stallion, and it can only be tamed through preparation, execution, and adaptability. This mentality permeates throughout the organization, illustrated by the maniacal work ethics of Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who often exchange ideas through phone calls and voicemails outside of work.

Before game day, the steps towards victory involve scouting, developing a game plan informed by knowledge gathered, and squeezing in as much film and repetition as the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement will allow. Most of this feeling-out process takes place in the week leading up to games, but it continues well after the bullets start flying.

Brady and McDaniels probing defenses in-game with opening drives that feature a brain-scrambling array of formations and personnel groupings. The way defenses match up provides an early indication of:

A. How the defenses want to attack them.

B. What blemishes the defense is trying to conceal.

Well-orchestrated, properly executed openers can set the tone for an entire game. They have the potential to instill confidence, doubt, or even fear. Teams who aren’t quite up to snuff can have their hopes snapped in only a handful of plays, while great teams tend to stay the course and persevere.

An offense’s margin for error predictably shrinks against intelligent, disciplined defenders who don’t fall for wily veteran antics. This challenge can be eased if the offense has skill players whose on-field presences can influence the entire complexion and mentality of a defense.

Rob Gronkowski earns universal praise for his prowess as a pass catcher and rare physicality as a blocker. Gronk’s overwhelming versatility make him truth serum against defenses, as he is such an unpredictable threat that moving him around often forces defenses to show their hand earlier than they want to.

The All-World tight end’s versatility and ability to dictate games are unquestionably unique, but he isn’t the only tone-setting matchup problem in the tight ends meeting room.

NOT-SO-SECRET WEAPON

Fullback James Develin may not be a household name, but he is a versatile difference maker for the offense. Like most locally beloved Patriots, he wears many hats for the team, including force field, decoy, demolition expert, on-field scouting tool, and most importantly – a tone setter.

The 6’4”, 255 lb bruiser is a perennial Pro Football Focus darling, grading out in the top two at his position in each active season since 2014. His season-ending preseason injury in 2015 turned the team’s rushing attack into an anemic improv routine that soured as the season dragged on.

In 2017, Develin earned Pro Bowl honors for the first time in his career, paving the way for the league’s 10th most productive running game – an impressive accomplishment considering the Patriots also led the league in passing yards.

Despite his blinding value, the two-time Super Bowl Bird-Wrangler doesn’t receive much praise outside of New England by virtue of his position. Fullbacks have largely become undervalued with the growing popularity of spread offenses. Even premier lead blockers only account for about ⅓ of their teams’ offensive snaps. According to Pro Football Reference, Develin annually hovers around 30% of snaps on offense, but he makes the most of his time on the field.

The neckroll-sporting road grader also accounted for the 10th-most special teams snaps on the team in 2017 – more than punter Ryan Allen and long snapper Joe Cardona – serving as a last line of defense on kick returns and a pseudo-lineman on the punt team.

Belichick understands value like few others in the NFL and knows how to maximize it. In an interview leading up to Super Bowl 52, the oft-somber coach praised Develin for his versatility, reliability, and grit:

James [Develin] is a smart guy, a tough kid, and he has worked himself into a very significant role on the team on special teams and on offense. He is one of our most dependable players. He is so consistent, tough, and makes good decisions on all things he is involved in.

Here’s a quick scouting report to give you an idea of what Develin brings to the table:


Strengths

  • Tough, hard-nosed player with the mentality and size to succeed in any era
  • Style of play helps set the tone for the offense
  • Ideal frame and bulk for a lead blocker
  • Strong burst out of his stance
  • Excellent understanding of angles and leverage
  • Makes concentrated effort to get lower than his target when blocking
  • Knows when to be a bulldozer and when to let a defender’s momentum do the hard work for him
  • Possesses the strength and lead hands to pop and redirect linemen, toss backers, and raze DBs
  • Keeps thick legs churning through contact
  • Tough for LBs and smaller DL to move when he drops anchor
  • High-motor player who finds work when there is no immediate threat
  • Patient blocker who quickly identifies and engages the most dangerous threat to a play
  • Spatial awareness and discipline to avoid penalties when pass blocking second-level defenders off play-action
  • Shows soft hands and good concentration when targeted
  • Displays thorough understanding of his responsibilities at multiple positions

Weaknesses

  • Doesn’t have the speed, athleticism, and receiving ability of today’s West Coast fullbacks
  • Hip tightness limits change of direction and route running

Arguably the best showcase of Develin’s value last season came in Week 10 against the Denver Broncos when he was lining up at three different spots on offense in only four plays.

On his first two snaps, the fullback assumes his traditional spot between Brady and Lewis in the i formation. The plays are similar, with Develin using leverage, power, and precise hand placement to stop Broncos linebackers in their tracks.

Collisions like this aren’t quickly forgotten. It takes a defender with a couple screws loose to shoot gaps all game knowing a brick wall is waiting to greet him.

Develin’s role got more interesting two plays later, when a muffed Broncos punt gave Brady and Co. the rock inside their opponent’s 30-yard line.

To kick off their second drive, the fullback takes a vacation from his home in the backfield to a quaint island outside the numbers. Linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who typically plays in the box, follows Develin outside. Barrett’s unusual alignment and the two deep safeties tell Brady that the Broncos are likely in some type of man coverage, likely Cover 5 (each safety covers half of the field to prevent completions deep down the sideline).

Both safeties drift towards their respective boundary post snap, confirming the suspected coverage and leaving versatile halfback Rex Burkhead one-on-one against linebacker Brandon Marshall. With the other receivers running vertical to clear room underneath, Burkhead gets just enough separation on an option route to shake free from Marshall and fight for a first down.

On the following play, Develin lines up offset right in the shotgun as the lone back next to Brady – another funky spot for a fullback. Free safety Darian Stewart assuming the role of outside corner against Burkhead tips Brady off that Denver is in man coverage, this time Cover 1 (a single-high safety polices the deep middle of the field while an underneath defender patrols intermediate-to-shallow).

After throwing a block to help right tackle LaAdrian Waddle against fearsome pass rusher Von Miller, Develin charges upfield before breaking outside.

The fullback may not appear to have had much of an impact on the play at first glance. However, upon closer inspection, Develin’s well-timed route draws Brandon Marshall away from the middle of the field and creates more room for Burkhead to operate after the catch. With Gronkowski drawing a double-team and Develin occupying his man, the running back is free to pick up yards after the catch and rumble into the end zone.

Develin even played a key role in Dion Lewis’ 103-yard kick return TD, sealing the perimeter to prevent the coverage team from closing in on the returner.

Develin’s ability to line all over the formation is invaluable to the Patriots’ offense. This flexibility wouldn’t be possible without his punishing style of play, which shines brightest against the most physically imposing and intelligent defenses. Few teams of this decade fit that description better than head coach Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks.

A WORTHY ADVERSARY

Carroll’s defense boasts a fairly static single-high defense, with change-ups and trap coverages cleverly sprinkled in to keep offenses on their toes. His philosophy revolves around the idea that there are a limited number of concepts that can be used to exploit a coverage, which gives Seahawks a rough blueprint of how teams will come after them each week. Carroll’s defense sees Cover 1 and Cover 3 beaters everyday in practice, which allows his players to attack with an offensive mentality.

At the height of the its reign, Seattle’s ravenous front, rangy linebackers, and the bone-crunching physicality of prototype box safety, Kam “Bam Bam” Chancellor suffocated runs and underneath passes. If that weren’t enough to give coordinators fits, free safety Earl Thomas’ instincts and cornerback Richard Sherman’s rare length made launching bombs on their secondary a fool’s exercise.

Besting this unit was a tall task, but not an insurmountable one. Having success against Seattle through the air required leaning on horizontal concepts that freed receivers to gain yards after the catch, capitalizing on scarce big play opportunities, and methodically sauntering downfield for touchdowns.

If this strategy rings a bell, that’s because it epitomizes New England’s offensive philosophy. On paper, their frugal approach is Seattle’s kryptonite. But paper projections also crowned the 2011 Eagles a “Dream Team,” and we all know how that turned out.

In reality, Brady and his offenses have had to fight hard for every single yard they’ve earned against the Carroll-led teams. The 2-1 record Seattle has earned against New England since 2012 is, in part, a testament to the their intelligence, preparation, and talent.

SENDING A MESSAGE

The Patriots and Seahawks’ physical 2016 sequel to 2014’s high-flying conclusion was arguably better than its predecessor. New England’s ground game chewed up yards, infiltrating opposing end zones at will, and proving itself capable of carrying the offensive load during Brady’s four-game suspension to start the season. Their success was anchored by a battle-tested LeGarrette Blount, budding right guard Shaq Mason, promising left guard Joe Thuney, All-Pro right tackle Marcus Cannon, a mythical Black Unicorn (aka tight end Marty Bennett), and of course the jackhammer they call Develin.

The game’s opening series made it clear that McDaniels and his offense wanted to send a message to the visiting team; This ain’t the 2014 Patriots. We weren’t scared of you then, and we sure as hell ain’t scared of you now.

McDaniels’ script featured play calls designed to establish New England’s presence on the ground and take advantage of Seattle’s aggressive front. NBC and former All-Pro wide receiver Cris Collinsworth praised the Patriots’ approach to the grudge match:

I always loved the opening drives of the New England Patriots – they do everything, Al [Michaels]. You’ve seen every formation that you could possibly see so far in this first drive–and all they’re doing is testing the waters; what are [the Seahawks] gonna do when we put two tight ends in? What are they gonna do when we put a fullback? They’ve gotten a lot of answers already on this drive.

When Develin was on the field, New England’s message to Seattle was deafening. The flow of Super Bowl XLIX limited the fullback’s impact, but he more than made up for it the second time around.

Develin made his offensive debut on the Patriots’ second play from scrimmage following a 13-yard screen pass to halfback James White. Crouching in a 3-point stance as an H-back from a 2x2 formation (two receiving options on each side of the formation), Develin begins creeping to the offense’s right once Brady begins his cadence.

At the snap, he explodes from behind left tackle Nate Solder and jolts defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson on a wham block, creating an alley for Blount.

On Develin’s second play of the game, a play action pass on 2nd & 5, the fullback settles between Brady and Blount in the I formation. Develin surges ahead as Brady fakes the handoff, creating the illusion of a run to suck up nosey defenders and slow down the pass rush.

Defensive tackle Tony McDaniels almost gets into the backfield with a well-timed swim move against center David Andrews. Develin spots McDaniels, dips his shoulder to get lower than the target, then comes up to pop the tackle, stopping him in his tracks. Once the fullback sees the rush is no longer an immediate threat, he emerges from the chaos to give his a quarterback an easy check down.

Brady ultimately slings the pass incomplete to wide receiver Julian Edelman, but Develin does his job and shows good awareness on the play.

Develin’s third snap came on the heels of a 3rd & medium conversion to Gronkowski. Once again he lines up as the middle back in the i formation, this time with two running backs, two tight ends and special teams captain Matthew Slater as the sole receiver. This formation screams run, as Slater is only used on offense as a blocker and occasional deep threat.

Here, Develin is the lead blocker for an outside zone run, where his primary responsibility is to seal the edge. From his position lurking near line of scrimmage, Kam Chancellor quickly diagnoses the play and zips around the edge to wreak havoc in the backfield. Develin alertly locks in and crashes down on the threat, largely taking the safety out of the play and giving Blount room to work outside.

This was no small feat, as the freshly-retired Chancellor still appears in the nightmares of offensive linemen who have felt his wrath over the years. Crunching a defense’s enforcer on the opening drive is the epitome of setting the tone for a drive.

The Patriots would cap the series four plays later with Blount driving into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown.

Develin slams into Brock Coyle to keep the linebacker from shooting into the backfield for a possible stop. His effort doesn’t directly affect the final result, but it does serve as another example of 46 doing his job while happily punishing unsuspecting defenders.

In a titanic clash that proved to be one of 2016’s best matchups, the Patriots would ultimately fall to the Seahawks. However, Develin and the running game did their part to set a physical tone that echoed throughout the contest, giving New England an early spark that wouldn’t be extinguished until the game’s final play.