FOXBOROUGH — Perhaps it was merely lingering holiday cheer, but Bill Belichick was smiling ear to ear during a recent news conference. If that wasn’t the reason, then maybe it was the topic of conversation: the fullback.
“The hard part about that position is dealing with what’s in front of you,” the Patriots coach said as part of a discussion that spanned six questions and more than 1,000 words. “A lot of times the way a play is drawn up on paper isn’t the way it happens. Guys move and blocks that should be made cleanly in front of you aren’t clean, and there’s another body or half a body that’s in the way, and do you take that guy instead of the guy you’re supposed to block or do you go around him and let him penetrate?
“When there’s too much penetration you have to take him, when there’s not enough penetration, then the running back can get by him and you still go to your player, and then of course sometimes that changes. The guy you were blocking moves and stunts and somebody else is there and you have to figure it out on the run. There’s a lot more of that from the fullback position than there is on the line of scrimmage. There’s some of that on the line of scrimmage, but more of that at fullback.”
The position is considered a dying art in today’s NFL, where coaches and offensive coordinators are trending more toward tight ends who line up on the line of scrimmage and can block, but are also more involved in the passing game. Belichick appreciates a good tight end, but he’s also got a fullback he’s fond of in James Develin.
Develin, in his fourth season, laughed when he was told about Belichick’s State of the Fullback address.
“That probably doesn’t happen too often,” Develin said, referencing his coach’s longwindedness.
Develin wasn’t surprised, though. He needs no other reminder than his game checks that the Patriots value his position.
“I’m incredibly thankful that the Patriots continue to use a fullback and they continue to use me.” he said. “It’s just an honor to play for such a good organization and I’ve been able to kind of carve out a little niche for myself here, and it’s just awesome.”
Even as the position was going out of style, playing fullback was Develin’s ticket to a roster spot in 2012 after he graduated from Brown. Develin went from trying out for the Browns to the Arena Football League to the United Football League to a stint on the Bengals’ practice squad, where the Patriots found him.
He’d played defensive end in college but was too slow and small, at 6 feet 3 inches, 255 pounds, to do so in the NFL. Develin could still hit and understand gap schemes at an advanced level, however, so he generated interest as a lead blocker.
“I knew that there was still opportunity in the league when I was coming out of college, and honestly I had to try to kind of advertise myself as anything that would get me to stick because this was my goal, this was my dream, and so I was kind of trying to pull out all the stops to make it work,” Develin said.
This season, Develin has been on the field for a career-high 30.4 percent of the Patriots’ offensive snaps, helping pave the way for the Patriots excellent running game and LeGarrette Blount’s career season. Develin played 26.9 percent of the offensive snaps in 2013 and 22.6 percent in 2014. He missed the 2015 season after he fractured his right leg during a preseason game and was placed on injured reserve.
Develin has played even more recently, lining up for a career-high 43 snaps — 57 percent of offensive plays — against Denver and playing 40 snaps on Christmas Eve against the Jets.
Develin’s role is to be the streetsweeper, and that has not changed, but Tom Brady has even thrown a few passes his way recently. Develin was targeted twice in the first Jets game, catching one pass for 5 yards, caught his only target for a 13-yard gain against Denver, then caught his only target for no gain in the second Jets game.
The three occasions on which he has been used as a kickoff returner have also all come after the bye in Week 9.
The workload is just fine with him, another element of Develin’s game that makes Belichick smile.
“He loves to play,” Belichick said. “Yeah, he’s happy to go in there. He’s done a good job for us on the punt team, the kickoff return team, he’s played for us in the kicking game, a very dependable player. James is strong. He’s not big like a lineman but he’s got very good playing strength for his size. I’d say he’s built to last.
“He’s got a strong body and he can take contact and he can give it out, too. He’s tough. He’s got a good mentality. He likes contact.”
Taking — and making — contact is at the heart of Develin’s job. It often seems a thankless one, digging holes so that others can run through them and be given the credit. Develin likes his work, though, and he’s always been willing to take the hits that come with it.
“I think that started for me when I was 7 years old, starting to play football. I mean, I’ve always loved contact, I’ve always been a head-first kind of guy,” Develin said. “It helps that I have a big head, a big thick skull. I’ve always loved that part of the game and this is a beautiful game that we get to play and contact is a big part of it, and I really try to take a lot of pride in that.”