Coming off an offseason full of turnover at wide receiver, the New England Patriots had plenty of questions at the position entering their opening day matchup against the Houston Texans. However, the team’s passing offense still had a productive outing – even though just nine of Tom Brady’s 26 pass completions were actually caught by wide receivers. The rest belonged to tight end Rob Gronkowski and the team’s offensive backfield.
Seeing James White and Rex Burkhead on the list of pass catchers is little surprising, both are among the better receiving backs in the NFL. Another name stands out, though: James Develin. The veteran fullback, who is more known for his work as a lead blocker in the running game, finished opening day tied for third on the team with four catches – a new career high – for a grand total of 22 yards.
While Develin is no stranger to catching the football due to his role as a versatile fullback/tight end-hybrid, seeing him getting targeted this often was still an unexpected development. The 30-year old had just six catches all of last year, after all, to bring his career total to 23 including the postseason. To his teammates, however, his recent emergence as a reliable receiving option is no shock.
“He’s been always preparing and been always ready,” tight end Rob Gronkowski, who joined the Patriots two years prior to Develin’s arrival in 2012, told reporters after the game. “Every time since I [can] remember since he’s been here, he’s always been ready to catch the ball. To get the first down, how many yards we need. He works hard, he plays hard, he blocks hard. It’s great to have him in the room.”
Gronkowski, who also added that the tight end room was dubbed the “tight ends and fullbacks room” in New England, is not the only player to sing Develin’s praises after his productive performance on Sunday. The aforementioned James White, who also finished the day with four catches – for 38 yards and one touchdown – and is no stranger to aligning in the backfield and on the perimeter, spoke highly of the former undrafted free agent.
“He’s out there on the field more and more each week,” White said after the game about his teammate. “He’s a very versatile guy and he made some key, big plays for us today. I think a lot of guys just tried to step in there and make plays when the ball came their way.” Yesterday, it was Develin’s turn to frequently hear his number called – and he was up to the challenge, catching all four passes Tom Brady fired his way.
Arguably the biggest of those receptions came late in the fourth quarter: with the Patriots trying to run out to clock with a seven-point lead, Brady was forced to scramble to his right on a 2nd and 7. Develin stayed alive throughout the entire play and the NFL’s best quarterback had enough trust in the Pro Bowl fullback to make him his target. Develin showed that the trust was well placed, catching the pass for a 10-yard gain while also staying in bounds to keep the clock running.
Develin himself attributed his productive day as a receiver to the Patriots’ Do Your Job-mentality. “I’m just trying to go out there, do what the coaches ask me to do, get as open as I could and catch every ball that came to me,” he said after the game against Houston. “Thankfully I was able to do that today, but we have a ton more that we can work on offensively and I’m excited to get back to work.”
“I always come in here and have to earn my keep every single day,” Develin continued. “I try to stay as hungry as I was when I was 21 years old in this league and just trying to get my foot in the door. I think that will take me as far as I will ever go. I just have to always work and try to earn my stay and that’s what I’m going to do every day.” On Sunday, this work paid off for Develin and allowed the Patriots to stay on course despite an oft-reported shortage at the wide receiver position.