For Danny Vitale, the opportunities appeared endless.
As he waded through the free agent waters, the chance to come to New England, a place where the fullback is embraced in a variety ways, was too tempting to pass up.
Vitale had watched James Develin thrive in the Patriots offense, and although Develin hadn’t yet announced his retirement when Vitale signed on, it was clear it was a possibility.
“Seeing all the amazing things that James Develin did over the last couple of years, obviously that’s enticing for a fullback,’’ Vitale said Thursday during a video call. “So, definitely excited to be here.’’
Vitale knows being the fullback in New England comes with large expectations.
“It’s definitely some pretty, pretty dang big shoes to fill,’’ he said. “James is a hell of a player. I’ve enjoyed watching him really since I got into the league. He was really a role model at the position, which, as a fullback, a lot of people don’t typically notice how important that role can be. I think it was pretty clear how important James really was to this Patriots team over the last however many years. So, definitely have some big shoes to fill, but I’m really looking forward to that opportunity, as well.’’
Develin’s value and versatility came in the form of crunching blocks to clear running lanes, as a pass protector, and an important safety valve receiver. He was more of an old-school, smashmouth fullback. Vitale also offers position flexibility, but he’s a bit more athletic, and could get his hands on the ball more in Josh McDaniels’s attack.
Vitale was drafted by the Buccaneers in 2016 but never played in Tampa. Instead, he spent two years with the Browns and the last two with the Packers. He was used in different ways by the three organizations, which has helped him become a total package fullback.
“I kind of had to learn how to play as a different type of fullback in different types of offenses over the last couple years … jumping around a little bit,’’ said Vitale, who signed a one-year, $1.3 million deal. "So, when I was in Tampa Bay, I was more of a tight end, wing type of player. In Cleveland, I was kind of a hand-in-the-ground, bruising-type fullback. And then in my time in Green Bay, I did a little bit of both. I was kind of all over the field. They would split me out a little bit, catching passes out of the backfield, being a running back at times and protection back.
"I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned about my style over the last couple of years is being able to be versatile and trying to use my intelligence to the best of my ability, learn as much as I can for as many spots as I can, so whenever they need somebody to step in, I can fill that role. So, that’s kind of how I would describe my style of play.’’
Vitale said he developed a good rapport with Aaron Rodgers, calling him “one of my best friends in Green Bay,’’ as the two connected on several big plays in 2019.
“I think my abilities with the ball in my hands, as well, that’s a huge advantage I think in my style of play is being able to be a playmaker when you need it,’’ Vitale said. “I think it showed a little bit last year, as well, in Green Bay, and looking forward to hopefully getting some more opportunities to do that here in the near future.’’
Vitale said a “silver lining” to not being able to join his new teammates yet has been the extra time he’s been able to spend with his daughter, Bella, who was born last month. He added that learning the playbook virtually hasn’t been too awkward.
“Relatively speaking, as an older player, it’s pretty similar to what we’d be going through. We’re able to watch film and everything. We have our playbooks on our iPads and everything, so we can look through,’’ said the 26-year-old Vitale. “As an older player, you kind of know what the job requires, so you know how often you’ve got to be watching film, going through your plays on your own and everything. I would say the only difference is we obviously can’t get together on the field right now, but other than that, it’s really similar and we get to hit a lot of details, which is great.’’