By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The impact that Patriots fullback James Develin had the offense was undeniably evident, both in his presence and his absence. And after seeing the run game go from championship-caliber to mediocre in part due to losing Develin in 2019, the Patriots quickly addressed that need in the offseason by signing Danny Vitale.
While Vitale is a bit of a different player than Develin, he understands that he was brought in to play a very important — if underrated — role in the Patriots’ offense.
“Definitely some pretty dang big shoes to fill,” Vitale said of Develin while speaking to reporters on Thursday. “James is a hell of a player. I’ve enjoyed watching him really since I got into the league [in 2016]. He was really a role model at the position. As a fullback most people don’t really notice how important that role can be. I think it was pretty clear how important James was to this Patriots team over the last however many years.”
Indeed, the Patriots made the Super Bowl in Develin’s last four healthy seasons (2014, 2016, 2017, 2018), winning three of them. They failed to reach the Super Bowl in the two seasons he missed during that time. That wasn’t, obviously, entirely due to the absence of the fullback, but it’s also no coincidence.
As for how Vitale, 26, might go about filling that role, he’s going to lean on his versatility — something that dates back to his collegiate days at Northwestern, where he was a “superback.”
“Yeah, it’s funny. I had never heard of a superback before I got to college,” Vitale said. “But basically it was just like an H back, a move tight end. Northwestern didn’t use a hand in the dirt tight end, so I played in the slot, on the wing, fullback when we used it, and played a lot of receiver basically as well. It was just kind of a versatile player who could do a little bit of everything.”
Vitale credited that role for keeping him on the field and for making the most of his abilities.
“That was just a great role for me with my athletic ability and then also with my ability to be able to block, it was just a way to get me at the point of attack and do a lot of cool things for me,” Vitale said, noting that the role was a big reason why he chose to go to Northwestern.
That versatility began to show itself at the NFL level last year. In his second year with Green Bay, he caught seven passes for 97 yards. That was after catching eight passes for 48 yards in 29 games from 2016-18.
While Vitale won’t be making the switch from Aaron Rodgers to Tom Brady, he said that he’s looking to build upon what he did last year.
“Being able to be a playmaker when you need it. I think it showed a little bit last year as well in Green Bay. Looking forward to getting some more opportunities to do that in the near future,” he said, while adding that he’s still capable and eager of “being the tough guy” — a necessity of the fullback position.
Vitale shared that he’s become a part of the growing fraternity of fullbacks in the NFL. That’s included receiving some “Make Fullbacks Great Again” gear from Keith Smith of the Falcons, and in developing a kinship with San Francisco’s Kyle Juszczyk.
“Yeah absolutely, I actually talk to Kyle a bunch. He’s a good buddy of mine. We got to do the whole jersey swap last year,” Vitale said. “I think he’s kind of the prime example of what a lot of teams are moving towards. Obviously every offense is different, but he’s been able to do a lot of great things. He’s kind of the player that I like to model my game after in terms of the versatility aspect.”
Exactly how far Vitale can stretch those talents remains to be seen. But one can imagine that Vitale’s collegiate stats — 135 receptions for 1,427 yards and 11 touchdowns in 48 games — will inspire Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels to find ways to activate Vitale in various roles that even Develin didn’t fill.
“I’ll do any job that they ask me to do,” Vitale said, already sounding like a seasoned Patriot. “I’ll play hard every single play, and I’ll do it to the best of my ability.”