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James Develin explains what makes playing tight end in the Patriots’ system so difficult

Related: Patriots’ schematic flexibility will be on full display in 2019

NFL: Houston Texans at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots’ tight end position is in the middle of a major transformation process, with the retirement of future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski as the biggest but not the only move made this offseason. Besides Gronkowski’s decision to step away from the game, the Patriots also decided to release Dwayne Allen and trade Jacob Hollister to the Seattle Seahawks. In between, some new faces were added to help pick up the slack.

The Patriots added three tight ends in free agency in Matt LaCosse, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Benjamin Watson. And despite two more players returning from last year — Ryan Izzo and Stephen Anderson — Watson is actually the most experienced tight end in New England’s system considering that he was with the club from 2004 to 2009. To be fair, however, there is another player basically on the position’s depth chart that has even more experience under his belt.

He’s just no pure tight end.

Since joining the Patriots as a practice squad signing in 2012, James Develin has developed into a core member of New England’s offensive attack as a fullback/tight end hybrid. As such, he has not only won three championships with the Patriots and appeared in a combined 95 regular season and playoff games for the club (compared to Watson’s 80), he also acquired a vast amount of knowledge about the team’s system and its use of the tight end position.

“I wouldn’t say there’s much uniqueness [to the position],” Develin told reporters earlier this week when breaking down the position within the framework of New England’s offense. “I just think that you really have to understand the whole play as a tight end because it’s not just what you’re route is in a pass play or what your blocking assignment is, you have to truly understand what the guy next to you has, what you have to look for in the defense.”

“It’s a pretty broad knowledge that you need to have at tight end because you have to look for a lot of things and you’re involved in the running game, pass protection — pretty much everything that goes on,” the one-time Pro Bowler, who is entering his eighth season with the Patriots, continued. “So you have to fully conceptualize every play or else you just kind of get lost in it all.”

Rob Gronkowski was, of course, a master when it came to acquiring this knowledge of New England’s offense, and to subsequently applying it in practice and during games. But even with the NFL’s prototypical modern tight end no longer a part of the equation, Develin seems comfortable in the current post-Gronk personnel — both on and off the field — to find success moving forward.

“Our coach, Nick Caley, does a really, really good job preparing us and getting us ready to go. [...] These guys have stepped up to the challenge and they’re making really good strides,” said Develin about the tight ends currently under contract with the world champions. This sounds encouraging, but only time will tell whether or not this confidence will be reflected on the field; and how the tight end position in itself will be featured in the offense in 2019.

Develin again projects to be a part of it due to his versatility and experience — at least one (de facto) tight end who can be considered a lock to make the team. The other six, meanwhile, will have to fight for their spots on the 53-man roster come September. The ones who best learn the offense and apply their understanding will emerge victoriously.