By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — You’re not supposed to notice the fullback. The very nature of the position requires a fearless individual who seeks no personal glory yet is willing to absorb and deliver some of the most violent hits in the world’s most violent team sport. Though only half the size of behemoth offensive linemen, the fullback is expected to do that same job without issue.
You’re not supposed to notice the fullback. But when the fullback is James Develin, you can’t possibly ignore him.
That much became clear rather early in Develin’s career as a Patriot, a career that took Develin from the Ivy League to the AFC East, with stops at the Arena League, the UFL, and the Bengals’ practice squad, plus a position change from the defensive line to the offensive backfield coming along the way. That unlikely journey put Develin in the position to become a regular contributor lining up behind Tom Brady.
After winning over his teammates with his unparalleled work in the weight room, Develin got his chance for that rare fullback glory, when he took a handoff from the 1-yard line in a Week 13 game in Houston. Develin took a fullback dive and tried to leap over the line like Emmitt Smith; that was not going to happen. Instead, Develin scored the perfect fullback touchdown, displaying his relentlessness and sheer power by breaking five tackles and leaving a trail of bodies behind him before falling forward into the end zone.
That game marked the first time that Develin had ever taken a handoff in an NFL game. Now seven years later, as Develin retires from the game, he does so with what should be considered the ideal fullback rushing statistics: 15 attempts, 26 yards, five touchdowns, 12 first downs. His longest run? Five yards.
Of course, Develin’s role was much more significant than just his rushing total. A man who could bench more than 500 pounds and squat close to 700 pounds, Develin’s job was to fly into a hole and not stop until he found a head-on collision. That he was also able to function as a pass catcher — with 31 receptions for 222 yards, plus five more catches and a touchdown in his playoff career — made Develin the rare and perfect blend of size, strength and skill.
But ask anyone from inside that locker room, and the trait that was impressed upon them the most was Develin’s attitude.
“I think he has as much respect as anyone in the locker room,” Bill Belichick said prior to Super Bowl LIII. “He doesn’t say a lot, but he works as hard as anybody, and is a very team-oriented guy who always does what’s best for the team. On a team, that’s all you can ask for from a teammate. And he always does that. That’s why he’s so respected, and I’d say admired. He’s a great example for not just young players, but I’d say every player and person in the locker room — player and coach. He has a great attitude, works hard, does whatever he can to help the team. That’s really what it’s about.”
Last year, after Develin suffered the neck injury that would eventually end his career, longtime captain and emotional leader Matthew Slater was effusive in his praise of Develin.
“Never had a better teammate in 12 years of football,” Slater said. “He is the best teammate I’ve ever been around, bar none. He’s a tremendous human being, but he’s always been about putting this team first. He’s always been about sacrificing for the greater good. And when you talk about everything that this organization hopes to stand for, nobody embodies it better than James.”
Slater added: “I think about the 12 years that I’ve been here in New England, and I think about the entire time that I’ve played organized sports — I’ve never had a better teammate. I’ve never been around a person who’s been more team-oriented, who’s been excited to see others have success, who’s been willing to put aside his ego and anything else for the betterment of the team. And James Develin is the ultimate competitor, the ultimate teammate. And when I think about this organization and what we hope to stand for, James Develin embodies all of that. I love the guy like a brother.”
Emotionally, losing Develin was a major blow to the 2019 Patriots. His absence certainly could be felt on the field, too. Jakob Johnson tried his hand at replacing Develin but lasted just four games before suffering an injury of his own. Elandon Roberts selflessly made the move from linebacker to fullback, and he filled in admirably for the duration of the regular season. But Mike Vrabel’s Titans defense made Roberts look like a linebacker-playing-fullback in the Patriots’ lone postseason game.
While no one would ever pin the entirety of a team’s accomplishments or failures on the presence of one player, let alone a fullback, it may not be a coincidence that the only two times the Patriots have failed to reach the Super Bowl since 2014 were the two years when Develin missed all or most of the year due to injury.
Alas, a sport like football can only be played for so long. And a position like fullback lends itself to creating short careers. That Develin lasted as long as he did is a testament to his determination. That word may be cliched to the point of losing all meaning when used in the realm of sports, but one must only watch all of one Develin snap to see that the platitudes in this case are anything but empty.
Let’s start with the end zone view of that first career touchdown, because really, that’s a football play by a football player that can’t be admired enough.
There were plays where Develin didn’t carry the football but instead carried his running back:
There were countless plays where he’d get to show off his strength by stopping 300-pounders dead in their tracks. Here’s one where he did that on Leonard Williams:
There were scenes like this most times Develin caught passes in the flat, with linebackers doing their best to try to lasso the wild fullback in the open field:
While this next one came during a preseason game and thus did not count, the silky smooth hands on display in open space were very much real:
Fear not, though. Those smooth hands were on display plenty in games that actually counted, too:
There were numerous plays like this, where Develin had the athleticism to change directions before having the brute strength to make the block needed to spring a 15-yard run:
There were Super Bowl receptions …
… and there were AFC Championship Game touchdowns where he’d once again show off the blend of athleticism and power by spinning to make a catch before simply refusing to be tackled short of the goal line …
And then there was the 2018 postseason run.
They won’t install a wing at the Pro Football Hall of Fame solely dedicated to Develin’s 2018 postseason. But … maybe they should?
Hyperbole aside, Develin was immense as the Patriots ran for 485 yards and nine touchdowns in three games.
Against the Chargers in the divisional round, he was the lead blocker for all four rushing touchdowns, and his work with Rob Gronkowski on the fourth one was simply unbelievable.
Also in that game, Develin rushed for three yards on a third-and-1, and he rushed for two yards on a second-and-1, both of which came on scoring drives.
The following week in frigid Kansas City, the Patriots opened a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter, with Develin leading the way for Sony Michel:
Much later in the game, in the fourth quarter, with the Patriots trailing and facing a fourth-and-inches, the offense didn’t go with the tried-and-true quarterback sneak. Instead they went off tackle, and behind Develin. They’d end up getting much more than the necessary inches:
That wasn’t enough, though, in that crazy back-and-forth fourth quarter. And when the Patriots needed another touchdown, it was run behind Develin on a counter:
And then, after the three successful third-and-10 plays from the Brady-Edelman-Gronkowski trio in overtime, it was back to the ground game. Linebacker Reggie Ragland wanted absolutely nothing to do with Develin, allowing Rex Burkhead to run for 10 easy yards.
With a trip to the Super Bowl now in their grasp, the Patriots would have been nuts to go with anything other than a run behind Develin. The Patriots were not nuts:
It was no surprise that the Patriots continued the rushing attack two weeks later against the Rams. Yet while you surely remember how that game ended, you may have forgotten something about its beginning.
On the very first play from scrimmage, Develin stepped up as the lead blocker for Michel. In Develin’s way was the 6-foot-4, 313-pound Ndamukong Suh. Develin had handled such behemoths with ease countless times before, but on this play, Suh got the best of the fullback.
Develin may have gotten flattened … but he still did his job, doing enough to help spring Michel for 13 yards.
And of course, that low-scoring grind of a game came down to two final drives for the Patriots. The first led to the lone touchdown of the game, a play that featured a perfect symphony of blocking. Develin was, of course, the maestro in the middle of it all:
The game didn’t end there, though, and it likewise didn’t end when Stephon Gilmore picked off Jared Goff. The Patriots took over at their own 4-yard line, needing to kill four minutes of clock in order to seal the win. In a game where offense was difficult to come by, doing that was far from a guarantee.
Yet Michel got the Patriots out of trouble, which gave Develin one more chance to make his mark on the game. On a second-and-7 at the New England 41-yard line, Burkhead ran behind Develin and broke off a 26-yard run.
The Patriots ran behind Develin the rest of the way, gaining nine more yards and setting up Stephen Gostkowski’s 41-yard field goal that unofficially clinched the win.
Develin’s stat line from that game? Zero rushes, zero receptions, zero yards. Suffice it to say, his actual impact was slightly more than zero.
Nationally, whenever the success of the Patriots gets examined, it’s almost always done in the big-picture aspect, with Brady and Belichick getting all of the credit. On the micro level, though, the Patriots’ success has always hinged on people like Develin — players with defined roles and no egos. That list of champion contributors is long, but Develin may well be the best of those “unsung” champions.
Just be careful using that word around Belichick, who was so moved by Develin’s retirement that he issued a statement of sheer praise and appreciation on Monday afternoon.
“To some people, James Develin may be ‘unsung’ in terms of publicity and fame, but to his coaches and teammates he is one of the most appreciated and respected players we have ever had,” Belichick said Monday. “In football, there are a lot of tough, unselfish and dependable people who bring positive leadership on a daily basis, but the name James Develin represents those qualities at an elite level. A tribute to the impact James had on our success, of the five seasons in which he appeared in every game, we won three championships. Any team would be fortunate to have a James Develin-‘type’ on its roster but the reality is he is a rarity and we are very fortunate he was a Patriot.”