The fullback may be a dying breed in the NFL, but he still plays a considerable role within the New England Patriots’ rushing attack and offense as a whole. Over the past decade, the ultra-reliable hands of James Develin held onto the job and provided the Patriots with some quality play from the position — as well as considerable versatility and leadership. Both would be valuable to have on the 2020 team as well considering the offseason departure of veteran players such as quarterback Tom Brady, but this will not be the case.
After all, Develin pulled the plug on his career in pro football on Monday, citing “unforeseen complications” in his recovery from a neck injury that cost him most of the 2019 season as the deciding factor behind his retirement. With the 31-year-old gone, the Patriots will have to find a new starting fullback for the first time in almost a decade. Luckily, the team does have some contingency options on its roster in the form of free agency addition Danny Vitale and second-year man Jakob Johnson.
Who will win the role? Let’s take a look at both contestants to find out who has the better chances.
The case for Danny Vitale
Vitale is entering his first season in the Patriots’ system after the team signed him as an unrestricted free agent in mid-March. While no roster lock by any means, the team did opt to sign him to a deal worth a total of $1.3 million — showing that New England sees some potential value in him but is not necessarily committed to anything. That said, Vitale offers some of the same skills that made Develin such a productive and important player in the New England offense.
For once, he brings a similar level of versatility to the table and should be able to contribute on both offense and special teams from Day One. From the perspective of the offense, he has experience lining not just up as a lead blocker in the backfield but also on the line of scrimmage and even split out wide. While he cannot exactly be classified as a receiving threat, the 26-year-old can offer the Patriots a varied skillset that has some similarities to Develin’s in terms of pass protection, physicality and receiving in the open field.
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. Add some proven production in the NFL and you get a player who has the upside to properly fill Develin’s rather sizable shoes in 2020 and beyond.
The case for Jakob Johnson
When Jakob Johnson joined the Patriots last offseason, he wasn’t just the last player on the roster — he was technically not on the roster at all: Johnson came to New England as part of the NFL’s International Pathway Program and joined the team as a roster-exempt 91st member. Despite starting his career as far down the depth char as possible, however, Johnson quickly showcased his value over the summer: he was physical as a lead blocker and special teamer, and brought impressive size (6-foot-3, 250 pounds) to the table.
As a result, he made the Patriots’ practice squad and was later promoted to the active roster after Develin’s season-ending neck injury in mid-September. Johnson was on the 53-man squad only four weeks before a shoulder issue forced New England to shut him down for the year as well, but the experience he gained within the system could still prove important this year: with on-field workouts during the offseason indefinitely postponed and the preparation currently taking place in a virtual setting, he could be in a solid position.
Add his contract — Johnson is not part of the Patriots’ top-51 contracts with a salary cap hit of only $675,000 — and you get a player who could surprise for the second year in a row by carving out a role with the team.
One side note on Johnson. Due to his status as a former Pathway prospect, the 26-year-old does currently not count against New England’s 90-man offseason roster: the Patriots have received an exemption for him.
The case for another replacement
Of course, the Patriots do not have to turn to a traditional fullback to fill Develin’s former role. Look at the 2015 season, when he broke his tibia in August and missed the entire year because of the injury: New England did not bring a new fullback on board, and instead turned to its tight end position — primarily Michael Williams — to provide help in the lead-blocking role. The team’s coaching staff could opt to go a similar route in 2020 as well, especially considering the current tight end depth chart.
While Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo combined to play 15 snaps during the 2019 campaign from the backfield, the team’s rookie additions could play a bigger role than that. Devin Asiasi has proven himself a solid blocker and could be trusted with some looks as a lead blocker as well. The best bet to take over the role outside of the Patriots’ tight ends, and in case they opt not go with either Vitale or Johnson, appears to be Dalton Keene: the third-rounder projects well as an H-back at the next level, and has shown that he can successfully execute blocks when on the move. He is a name to watch.
All in all, the Patriots have multiple options to fill Develin’s role moving forward. Vitale appears to be the frontrunner at the moment due to his athletic upside and experience, but the changed offseason program could tip the scales in Johnson’s favor a bit. Of course, the role of Dalton Keene and the tight end position as a whole cannot be underestimated either. One thing is certain: the fullback position will be an interesting one to watch heading towards the 2020 season.