BOSTON (CBS) – After being released by the Cincinnati Bengals for the second time in as many years, James Develin encountered more a fork than crossroads in his career.
He had an Ivy League education and could have easily — and understandably — abandoned the path that had taken him from near oblivion as a minor leaguer to obscurity as a practice squad journeyman. Surely, his Brown University degree in engineering could guarantee less violent and even more lucrative ways to make a living.
Develin, though, was determined to keep churning as a fullback in the making. So at the start of last September, he was really left with just one choice: join Tampa Bay’s so-called taxi squad or sign on to New England’s. He opted for the latter.
Twelve months later, Develin prepares to face the Buccaneers as not just a Patriot, but one who started the season’s first two games. If that reality alone isn’t remarkable enough, consider how this September began.
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Develin was on New England’s original 53-man roster, made official on Saturday, Aug. 31. By the following Tuesday, less than a week before the opener at Buffalo, he was out of work again. Develin was cut to clear room for tight end Matthew Mulligan.
“I went back to (New) Jersey and got in the weight room and continued to train, because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Develin, who hails from the Philadelphia area. “I just wanted to be ready.”
He had hardly enough time to count reps, much less sets. As soon as Friday, Develin was officially back in the Patriots’ fold. And on the Sunday after going from released to re-signed, he was on the field for 31 plays, offensive and special teams, in a 23-21 win over the Bills.
“It was a roller coaster,” Develin says of his on-off and on-again, week-one experience. “I was really excited to make the team. Then it was a little disappointing, but that’s just the NFL. I can’t really cry over spilled milk at his point. I’m back on the team and feeling good.”
Last Thursday in the home opener against the New York Jets, Develin played 29 of the team’s 65 offensive snaps. On the first series alone, he lined up everywhere from fullback in the traditional I-formation to outside in a spread; more an X-factor than X-receiver.
“I’m just trying to do whatever the coaches tell me to do,” he said on Monday, standing in front of his locker at Gillette Stadium. “Whatever they need me to do, I’m going to go out there and do my best and try to continue to prove myself on this team.”
While Foxborough has become Develin’s proving ground, perhaps his most important steps as a pro were taken for a now defunct franchise in a league currently on hiatus. They also happened to be on the opposite side of scrimmage from his position in college.
At Brown, Develin wore a fullback’s number, 44. But the extent of his offensive career was a single appearance. Otherwise, he was a defensive lineman. Upon graduation, he worked out for Cleveland as a linebacker, before playing briefly for Oklahoma City of the Arena Football League.
His next move was two-fold. Develin signed with the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League and shifted from defense to offense. Accompanied by the likes of former Colt Dominic Rhodes and ex-Pat Jermaine Wiggins, Develin helped the Tuskers reach the championship of a league seemingly intended to become the football equivalent of baseball’s Triple-A.
Within a year, the Tuskers re-located to Virginia and the UFL was forced by finances — or lack thereof — to cut its season short. By then, the team and its league had served Develin’s purpose.
“I was really just trying to get in (to pro football) however I could,” he said. “I was an undrafted guy. I knew it would be an uphill battle, so I literally just put my resume out there and said, ‘Look, I’ll do just about anything to get on an NFL team.’ Fullback just kind of fit.”
Well enough that Tuskers’ head coach Jay Gruden, who is now the third-year offensive coordinator of the Bengals, called Develin “a natural at the position.”
But that position no longer fits in the plans of many NFL teams, whose empty backfields and single-back sets don’t accommodate it. Fortunately for Develin, there was room in New England after Cincinnati let him go.
For the better part of three months, it was on the practice squad. Nonetheless, Develin’s was time well spent.
“You might be playing the role of another team, but you’re still going against Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes,” he explains. “It’s just those experiences against those high-level guys that you can’t get anywhere else. That experience is just crucially valuable for the growth of the player.
“You’re also learning the offense just like any other player. That gave me a huge amount of confidence coming into this offseason, giving me a little bit of a ‘heads up’ on the offense.”
Late last season Develin was added to the Patriots’ 53-man roster for a four-week stretch. Though inactive on three of four December game days, he made his NFL debut on special teams in a nationally-televised Sunday night affair with San Francisco.
Three weeks into the 2013 schedule, despite a very brief detour back to Jersey, Develin occupies a far more significant role in New England. Even if he remains a fullback in progress.
“It’s been a process definitely. There’s been a lot of little, intricate things that I didn’t even know before coming to the offensive side of the ball,” Develin said. “But I’m four years into it now. I feel pretty comfortable.”
Which is not to suggest too comfortable.
“I’ll always need to work on things and always need to improve,” Develin says. “That’s why I’m here.”
Following so many short stops on the road to get here, he’d love to stay a while.
“I’ve always respected this organization, especially being so close for so many of their successful seasons,” says Develin, recalling his days as a Brown undergrad. “It was hard not to pay attention to (the Patriots). I have the utmost respect for this organization, having been around for four years before I got here, just seeing the success and appreciating the kind of player they have in the locker room here.”
Bob Socci is in his first season as the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.