Patriots fullback James Develin, an unheralded heavy hitter in the offense for seven years, announced Monday that he is retiring from football because of “unforeseen complications” from a neck injury he suffered last season.
Develin, 31, joined the Patriots as a practice squad player in 2012 after stints in the Arena Football League, United Football League, and on the Bengals’ practice squad following a college career as a defensive end at Brown.
Since 2013, he had played in all 16 games every season until 2019, when he was limited to two because of the neck injury.
Develin became a reliable lead blocker while playing on three Super Bowl winners. He also was an important special teams player, known especially for his toughness and willingness to clear the way for teammates. He earned a spot in the Pro Bowl in 2017.
“Honestly, in my 25 years of playing the game of football I never once thought this day would come," Develin wrote on Instagram. “Not only because I never lent my mind to the thought of me not playing football, but just because of how slim the chances truly were of me realizing my football dreams.
"My whole football career has been a million-to-one shot, so to sit here today and even have the ability to write these words I feel incredibly lucky and blessed to have been able to pursue a dream I’ve had since I was a boy.”
Develin went on injured reserve in Week 4 of last season after injuring his neck in Week 2 against the Dolphins. At the time, it was unclear what the recovery process and timeline would be, given that neck injuries are often unpredictable. He never got better to the point that the risk of reinjury would be worth taking.
“I’ve always maintained a belief that in the sport, the team is much more important than myself as an individual . . . and that belief still rings true, as I have to prioritize my team at home before anything else,” wrote Develin, who is married with three children.
The Patriots offense struggled without Develin last season, and had thrived with him playing a significant role in the recent past while most NFL teams went without a fullback. He helped power their effective run game in 2018 all the way through Super Bowl LIII, and was the lead blocker for all nine of the Patriots’ rushing touchdowns in that year’s playoffs.
"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,” said coach Bill Belichick.
"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.”
Develin’s career was mostly in setting up others, but, in his seven seasons, he did collect 31 catches for 222 yards and had 15 carries for 26 yards and 5 touchdowns.
New England still has fullbacks Jakob Johnson and Danny Vitale (signed March 20) on the roster, and also picked tight end Dalton Keene, who played some fullback at Virginia Tech, in the third round of the draft.
Like center David Andrews, who last week announced that he’s been medically cleared to play football again, Develin continued to attend meetings and provide leadership while he was on IR last season.
“I wish they were both out there on the field,” Belichick said of Develin and Andrews last season, “but they’ve done all they can do and contribute a lot on a daily basis and I’m personally very appreciative of what they do for the team and what they’ve done for me personally.”
Shortly after making the announcement Monday, Develin had a dozen-plus comments from current and former teammates on his Instagram post wishing him well and congratulating him on his career.
Nora Princiotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @NoraPrinciotti.