Ask James Develin for his thoughts on the Patriots’ decision to forgo the fullback position the last couple of years and he doesn’t hesitate in his response.
“I think you could probably guess my position on it,” he said with a laugh.
Develin, who played fullback in New England for eight seasons, was a three-time Super Bowl champion who became a key part of the offense. He helped clear the way for a variety of running backs, opening gaps for the likes of LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, and other 1,000-yard rushers.
The Patriots haven’t had a full-time fullback since 2021, when Jakob Johnson played six games. Develin acknowledges the game evolves on a regular basis, but says the fullback brings a level of physicality and toughness to an offense that’s hard to replicate at other positions.
“I’m a huge supporter of the fullback position. I think it adds an element of versatility and toughness to an offense,” said Develin, who was with the Patriots from 2012 until 2019. “That being said, it doesn’t necessarily fit in every puzzle, and I completely understand that.
“But I think we had a tough football team for a long time in New England, and I like to think I brought a piece of that toughness to the table. Selfishly, I would love to see them have a fullback again.”
The last two years, the Patriots have remade their approach to the ground game, and not just at fullback. After roughly 20 years, they have forsaken the third-down back, preferring to go the way of do-everything players such as Rhamondre Stevenson.
“Rhamondre is an absolutely fantastic back,” Develin said. “I would have loved to have blocked for him. He answers a lot of questions — he can do it all back there.”
At the same time, the psychological aspect of the game that comes with a battering ram of a fullback — namely, imposing your will on an opponent — can’t be denied.
“One negative when using a fullback is the predictability — you have a guy back there at 230-plus pounds back there, you pretty much know what’ll happen. The element of surprise goes out the door,” Develin said. “But I have to tell you, there’s something that just lights me up inside when you put 22 or 23 personnel on the field, and everyone in the building knows you are running the ball, and they still can’t stop you.
“It pains me as a former fullback to watch any team in shotgun in third or fourth and 1. It opens up the playbook and spreads people out, and I know that’s the trend. But it’s tough to watch.”
Develin, who lives in Southern New Jersey, marvels at what the Eagles are able to do, particularly when it comes to the short game and the “Brotherly Shove.”
“Down here, I watch the Eagles a lot,” he said. “I still watch the Patriots every week, but being down here we also get a lot of Eagles games, and the fact that they can run it on third and fourth and short … they get those quarterback sneaks and other short-yardage pickups, and no one can stop them. We took a lot of pride in being able to do that on a regular basis, to let the big guys work.”
It’s not just a New England thing. There are only a handful of full-time fullbacks left in the league, a group that includes San Francisco’s Kyle Juszczyk, Baltimore’s Patrick Ricard, and Minnesota’s C.J. Ham. In all, entering this weekend, only seven teams had fullbacks with 100 or more snaps — one of those teams was Las Vegas, but the Raiders cut Johnson loose late last week.
Fullbacks are being eased out for a couple of reasons. First, many teams kept one on the roster as a dependable blocker on kick returns. With the new fair catch rule, returns have been de-emphasized, which subsequently created less of a demand for fullbacks. Second, many teams (like the Patriots) are finding they can use a backup tight end or linebacker as a “stopgap” (in Develin’s words) if they need an extra body, particularly along the goal line.
“The tight ends can work into that spot,” Kansas City coach Andy Reid told reporters who asked about the fullback position earlier this year. “We know Noah [Gray] can do all of that, and that’s kind of where we went with it. We’ve got a number of tight ends that we feel comfortable with, so maybe you keep an extra tight end as opposed to that fullback.”
This season, New England has used tight end Pharaoh Brown as a big body in the backfield.
“New England has always appreciated positional versatility,” Develin said. “I know earlier in the year they were putting Pharaoh Brown back there, and he was doing a nice job. But he’s 6-foot-5, at least. You’re losing some natural leverage there. The thing is that you’re a full-time fullback for a reason — it takes a certain level of not [caring] to just play the position.
“One play here or there, I understand. I think over time over a whole year — on a case-by-case basis if you’re taking it one play at a time — asking someone to do it over an entire year, it might be tough.”
Of course, the possibility exists that the Patriots simply haven’t found anyone to do the job as effectively as Develin did it for the better part of eight seasons. Develin scoffs at that, but says it takes a unique individual to don the neck roll and work as a road grader for the rest of the running game.
“I don’t want to sit here and say they’ll never find anyone like me — that’d be ridiculous,” he said. “But there is a level of sacrifice that you have to deal with at the position.
“That’s one thing I understood on my journey in the NFL, that I’ll have to do things that are a little uncomfortable and people might not want to do, but it’ll give me the opportunity to live out my dreams. For me, it was about not [caring] about what happened and doing my job and not batting an eye.”