When James Develin announced his retirement from pro football in late April, the New England Patriots lost one of the most steady contributors of their Dynasty 2.0: Develin was one of the best fullbacks in the NFL, and undisputed at the position and as a leader in the team’s offensive backfield ever since his 2013 breakout season. With him now gone, however, the Patriots’ search for a replacement is officially underway.
Enter Danny Vitale.
Despite Develin not yet having officially announced his intentions to end his career at that point, New England signed Vitale as an unrestricted free agent in mid-March to not just serve as a contingency option but also to bring experience and depth to a position that lacked both after the season-ending neck injury Develin suffered early during the 2019 regular season. But despite being a proven player in the league, he still has to earn his spot on the the Patriots’ roster.
Vitale’s main rival projects to be second-year fullback Jakob Johnson, who arrived in New England via the NFL’s International Pathway Program last spring and turned an impressive training camp and preseason performance into a practice squad spot and later the job of being Develin’s replacement. Vitale does neither seem to be worried about Johnson, however, nor how about a competition with the youngster and other potential fullback options could unfold.
“We all bring something different to the table,” said Vitale during his introductory media conference call last week. “I think it’s important for all of us to find out exactly what our role is going to be and being able to do our job to the best of our ability. As an older guy at this point, I look forward to pushing those younger guys like Jakob, like Dalton [Keene], like Jake Burt, Devin [Asiasi] — anybody who might be in that role being able to really push each other, help each other learn.”
As opposed to the players he named, Vitale has a distinct advantage entering the competition: he started his career as a sixth-round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2016, and over his four seasons in the league has appeared in a combined 44 games. Johnson has four games on his résumé, for comparison, while Asiasi, Keene and Burt are all rookies. Asiasi and Keene are obviously roster locks due to their draft statuses, but Vitale’s experience could also prove valuable especially during the current abbreviated offseason.
“We’re able to watch film and everything. We have our playbooks on our iPads and everything, so we can look through,” Vitale said about his preparation in light of the Coronavirus crisis. “As an older player, you kind of know what the job requires, so you know how often you’ve got to be watching film, going through your plays on your own and everything. I would say the only difference is we obviously can’t get together on the field right now, but other than that, it’s really similar and we get to hit a lot of details, which is great.”
Even though his experience could put him in a solid position when the team eventually returns to work, Vitale knows that the performance on the field will decide who gets to earn a spot on the Patriots’ roster or practice squad.
“We’re all kind of in the same position right now, obviously, with the virtual meetings and not being able to get on the field,” Vitale said about the current state of the fullback group and the competition it will have over the course of the summer. “I don’t think you put any pressure on each other to really take one’s job or anything like that. It’s just you’re going to go out there and do your job and let the cards fall as they may.”