When James Develin announced his retirement from pro football earlier this offseason due to complications from a season-ending neck injury he suffered last September, the New England Patriots lost a legend. One of the best fullbacks of his era, Develin was a member of three Super Bowl-winning teams, was voted to the Patriots’ Team of the 2010s, and played a prominent role in the team’s offensive scheme due to his outstanding combination of power and versatility.
The Patriots, however, will have to look forward and find a successor this summer. The players fighting for his old role may not be many — fullback is, after all, a somewhat archaic position in today’s pass-happy league — but their competition should still be one of the most intriguing to watch this summer.
FB Danny Vitale, FB Jakob Johnson, TE Dalton Keene
When looking at the players competing for fullback snaps simply from a perspective of experience in the Patriots’ system, Jakob Johnson is the group’s elder statesman: as opposed to Danny Vitale and Dalton Keene he was already on the team prior to this offseason, arriving in New England last year as a member of the NFL’s International Pathway Program. Johnson ultimately made his way onto the team’s 53-man roster and appeared in three games before being sent to season-ending injured reserve.
Vitale and Keene, meanwhile, are both entering their first training camp in New England. While Vitale has stints with the Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers on his four-year NFL résumé — one that includes 44 in-game appearances as well as 16 touches for 148 yards — Keene has yet to play a professional football game: the Patriots selected him in the third round of this year’s draft. While this makes him a roster look, it also gives him the status of a wildcard at fullback and his primary position of tight end.
The deciding factors
Vision and play diagnosis: No matter if New England uses zone or man schemes, one false decision by the blockers up front could blow up an entire play. The fullback as one of these blockers therefore needs to be able to read what is happening in front of him and react accordingly to carry out his assignments and work in unison with the offensive line. James Develin was superb at this: he rarely hit the wrong hole or misdiagnosed the situation to set up negative results.
Blocking technique: Fullbacks may be a dying breed in the NFL, but the position itself still has plenty of value in New England’s scheme — just look at the team’s 2018 Super Bowl run that saw the introduction of a ground-and-pound mentality. In order for this approach to work, though, the fullback will need to be able to consistently win his matchups. A good blocking technique is therefore imperative: initial punch and hand usage, leverage and balance, and footwork and upper-body strength are all massively important.
Physicality: Develin was one of the best fullbacks in football because he left his mark no matter if he was serving as a lead blocker in the running game, a short-yardage back or a receiving option. His successor, whoever it will be, will have to display the same level of physicality and playing strength to adequately help fill Develin’s shoes. Both Johnson and Vitale have looked good in this area so far during their careers, while Keene has yet to show that he can adapt to the challenging nature of the pro game.
Receiving skills and versatility: When we analyzed the tight end position earlier this week, Keene, Vitale and Johnson were mentioned as competitors well: the three all have diverse skillsets that could make them into potential depth or rotational pieces at more than just one position. In general, being able to fill additional roles without any issues — Develin, for example, trained with the tight ends and was given numerous looks at the position — could boost a player’s value to the team.
Of the three players named above, one is a lock to make the roster: Dalton Keene’s draft status makes him a guarantee to be among the 53 men to survive the Patriots’ cutdown day this year. That said, the tight end who has experience playing as an H-back or in the backfield, is not necessarily the frontrunner to earn New England’s fullback gig. He may have the versatility to earn it, but will likely see most of his action in 2020 as a move tight end whose responsibilities may be limited to his primary position. The Covid-19 situation has done Keene and other rookies no favors.
Accordingly, it seems likely that the Patriots will keep one true fullback on their active roster this year — and that it will be either Vitale or Johnson. Neither is a safe bet to make the club, in part because both have strong arguments to take over James Develin’s old role: Vitale has the proven track record and the athletic upside, Johnson has the experience in the Patriots’ system and the athletic upside (yes, they are both very good athletes). Eventually their play on the practice fields will be the deciding factor.
How their battle will end remains to be seen, but one thing we do know is that for the first time since Develin’s emergence in 2013 New England does not know who its fullback will be heading into a new season.