The Patriots lost fullback Danny Vitale and guard Najee Toran after both players decided to opt out of the season because of the coronavirus pandemic, a league source confirmed Monday evening.
In addition, the club re-signed rookie slot receiver Will Hastings, per a league source. Hastings had been released in Sunday’s initial roster purge to get to 80. The club still has one open roster spot.
Vitale, who played the last two seasons with the Packers, and his wife, Caley, welcomed their first child, a daughter, on April 16. Toran spent the majority of the 2019 season on New England’s practice squad.
Vitale signed with the Patriots and immediately became the top player on the depth chart after James Develin retired. Vitale said in May the New England was a perfect fit and he looked forward to filling the “pretty dang big shoes” left behind by Develin.
“There’s only a handful of teams in the league that use fullbacks nowadays. Obviously, there’s been a little bit of a resurgence around the league now with the success that a lot of teams have had. That definitely plays into it,‘' Vitale said, explaining his decision to sign with the Patriots. “Obviously, you only have a couple options when it comes to that. But, seeing all the amazing things that James Develin did over the last couple years, obviously that’s enticing for a fullback. So, definitely excited to be here.‘'
Vitale’s absence means Jakob Johnson, who filled in when Develin went down in Week 2 last year before he suffered a shoulder injury that ended his season, jumps to the top of the depth chart.
A product of the NFL’s International Pathway Program, Johnson made tremendous strides last season, going from camp afterthought to the practice squad player to the starting lineup.
“Back in the spring, I don’t think anybody ever envisioned him being on the roster at that point, or even being on the practice squad, to tell you the truth,‘' coach Bill Belichick said of Johnson in September. “But he continued to get better, and certainly his physicality and his toughness showed up in the preseason games and in the preseason practices against Detroit and Tennessee.
“And so, he steadily worked his way into, call it a backup fullback role and was activated [to the 53-man roster] . . . What he’s done has been remarkable. And in a relatively short period of time, but he works extremely hard.‘'
The Patriots also have a pair of rookie tight ends — third-round pick Dalton Keene and free agent Jake Burt — who could compete for fullback snaps.
Toran spent last season on the Patriots practice squad. He was signed by the 49ers as an undrafted free agent from UCLA and spent the 2018 season on San Francisco’s practice squad.
Hastings played with quarterback Jarrett Stidham at Auburn, where the pair connected 26 times for 525 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2017.
Hastings walked on at Auburn as a kicker who specialized in onside kicks but eventually worked his way into the receiving corps and built a rapport with Stidham.
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The Patriots finalized their coaching staff Monday, with several vets changing roles.
Stephen Belichick, who had been the safeties/secondary coach, will now take over outside linebackers. His brother, Brian, will assume the safeties coach slot.
Jedd Fisch will coach the quarterbacks with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Cam Achord takes over the special teams coordinator position, while Mick Lombardi assumes the receivers coaching job. Both positions were held by Joe Judge last season.
Carmen Bricillo and Cole Popovich will split the offensive line duties, replacing the retired Dante Scarnecchia.
DeMarcus Covington, who had coached the OLBs, now takes over the defensive line. Troy Brown will work with the running backs (under coach Ivan Fears) and returners.
In addition to coaching the tight ends, Nick Caley will handle the fullbacks. Mike Pellegrino remains the cornerbacks coach.