The New England Patriots’ offense struggled with injuries in 2019, and the fullback position was no exception: starter James Develin was lost for the remainder of the season after hurting his neck in Week 2; rookie backup Jakob Johnson joined him on injured reserve due to a shoulder injury just one month later. New England therefore eventually had to turn to linebacker Elandon Roberts as a third-string emergency fullback.
Heading into 2020, the position remains one of uncertainty. Roberts has left the Patriots in free agency while neither Develin nor Johnson are guaranteed to return to form quickly. Develin in particular is a player to watch this offseason: while there was initial optimism that his injury might not be overly serious and maybe even only of the week-to-week variety, he was eventually diagnosed with a muscle and disc issue in his upper back/neck area.
Adding to this uncertainty is the fact that the Patriots invested in the position during free agency: New England signed Danny Vitale to a one-year, $1.3 million deal. While his contract does not guarantee Vitale a spot on the 53-man roster come September, it gives the Patriots another option should Develin’s recovery process not go as hoped. Vitale himself is still an interesting player, though, due to his athleticism and upside in the passing game.
With that said, let’s take a closer look at him.
Even though he entered the NFL as just a sixth-round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Vitale brought an intriguing athletic profile to the table: he ran a 4.6-second 40-yard-dash during the 2016 scouting combine and also performed well in the three-cone drill (7.12 seconds) as well as the vertical (38.5 inches) and broad jumps (10-foot-3) — all while being measured at almost 6-foot-1 and 239 pounds.
His general athleticism did not help him earn a roster spot in Tampa Bay, but it did show up regularly during his subsequent stints with the Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers. The following two plays from the Packers’ 2019 game against the Denver Broncos are an illustration of that:
FB Danny Vitale showed good mobility against the Broncos to reach defenders at the second level.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 21, 2020
Displayed his standout combine numbers on an impressive downfield reception that nearly resulted in a long TD pic.twitter.com/434O05Arui
As can be seen on the first play, Vitale (#45) possesses functional movement-skills that allow him to get to the second level and reach defenders on running plays — something New England regularly asked Develin, and to a lesser degree Johnson and Roberts as well, to do within their own zone-blocking concepts. Like the long-time Patriot, Vitale is also not afraid of initiating contact when bursting through the line to clear out running lanes.
The second play, meanwhile, shows his straight-line speed: he finds a hole in the left-side B-gap and accelerates quickly to out-run linebacker Josey Jewell (#47) and get open in the deep portions of the field. While Jewell eventually catches up to the fullback, Vitale makes a good catch in stride and takes the football to the opposing 1-yard line.
Throughout the years, Develin saw regular action in the Patriots’ passing game as a flex-fullback option and de facto tight end. His forte was still run blocking, though, an area that Vitale needs to improve in if he wants to make New England’s roster or possibly even serve as a potential heir to the 31-year-old. The following play shows some of the technical issues that the new Patriot still needs to address as a run blocker:
Vitale's hands are really wide and he basically hugs Todd Davis here, allowing the LB to benchpress him and disengage to join the scrum around the ballcarrier pic.twitter.com/GwR8c1w3oO— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 21, 2020
As can be seen, Vitale’s hands are too wide and he basically hugs Denver strong-side linebacker Todd Davis (#51). This, in turn, allows the defender to easily bench-press the fullback off him and disengage to join the scrum around the ball-carrier. The play itself did not break down due to Vitale’s inconsistent block, but it serves as an example of him lacking the same pop and ability as Develin to create movement in the hole.
The following play is more of the same:
The new Patriots FB may have Develin beat in the athleticism department, but I'm not seeing the former Pro Bowler's pop and ability to create movement in the hole.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 21, 2020
So far hand placement and power are question marks pic.twitter.com/cD3iq85cjK
Vitale’s athletic profile — especially his quickness — should help him address some of his issues as a run blocker, but unless he improves his hand placement and upper-body power he will have a hard time carving out a role on New England’s roster. Develin is as technically proficient a fullback as any in the NFL, for example, and Vitale needs to get to a similar level in order to become a consistent difference-maker in the team’s ground game.
While his run blocking has been up-and-down throughout his career, Vitale has looked good as a pass protector. The following play shows this, as he identifies his assignment immediately after the snap and shows some quick feet as well as a wide base and good balance. This, in turn, allows him to successfully mirror linebacker Josey Jewell and eliminate him from the play before it starts breaking down:
Solid rep in pass pro. Quick feet, wide base and feet, and easy mirroring pic.twitter.com/ysYBwS3mAR— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 21, 2020
Vitale may not have the most experience as a pass protector, but he has been solid whenever asked to fill that role: according to advanced analytics website Pro Football Focus, the 26-year-old has yet to allow a quarterback pressure in his career on 48 pass-blocking reps.
Vitale’s strong-suit is the passing game, even though he has only 15 catches for 145 yards on his 44-game NFL résumé. Still, his athleticism makes him an intriguing target out of the backfield — one that knows how to get open in the underneath area. The following play from last year’s regular season contest against the then-Oakland Raiders shows this, as Vitale gets through the line of scrimmage to catch a short pass for a gain of 22 yards:
Danny Vitale could fill an Elandon Roberts sized hole in the Patriots passing game pic.twitter.com/diV4SVzwP4— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 21, 2020
The play is reminiscent of the last touchdown ever thrown by quarterback Tom Brady in a Patriots uniform: during last year’s regular season finale, Brady hit Elandon Roberts on a similar swing-pass concept that also left him uncovered. Like Roberts, Vitale may not be your usual receiving threat, but he showed some soft hands during the 2019 season — the best of his career from a raw statistical perspective — as well as a feel for route-running.
In general, Vitale could be a mismatch in the passing game if New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can scheme him into space or get him one-on-one opportunities against linebackers. While not as agile as the Patriots’ receiving backs James White and Rex Burkhead, he still has the short-area mobility to gain separation in the short and intermediate portions of the field:
Vitale could be a fun mismatch in the passing game if McDaniels can scheme him into a lot of space or get him opportunities against LBs. Also runs good routes for the position pic.twitter.com/hFXhU4LKtJ— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 21, 2020
As can be seen on the first play above, the Packers flexed Vitale out to the right end of the line opposite Raiders defensive end Benson Mayowa (#91). The fullback immediately was able to gain outside leverage against Mayowa, and out-ran him after receiving a short pass. The play eventually gained 21 yards due to Vitale’s speed after the reception and ability to quickly turn up the field with the football in his hands.
The Packers may not have moved him around all that much, but he still has experience lining up all over the formation as a look at his 2019 snap distribution shows:
Considering that the Patriots also like to use their fullbacks in more than just the lead-blocking role, Vitale should be able to adapt well to his new surroundings. And while he still has room for improvement as a run-blocker, his general athleticism and overall skillset should match well with how New England runs its offense from the fullback’s perspective.
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