FOXBOROUGH — Tailback has largely been a tale of woe for the Patriots this season, with Jeremy Hill and Rex Burkhead landing on injured reserve and rookie Sony Michel currently working through a knee injury.
The constant, however, is the presence of James Develin, the fullback who won’t get any carries but helps carry the offense with his bruising blocking, no matter who’s dotting the “I” behind him.
“Big. BIG,’’ Ivan Fears said Thursday, his voicing rising on the second word for emphasis. “He’s the lead blocker. He’s their guiding light. He reads it all for them, helps them, and he blows up the first guy he comes in contact with.’’
Those thunderous collisions that Develin delivers are a big reason why the Patriots are averaging 115.3 rushing yards per game, good for 13th in the NFL despite the revolving door at tailback.
Develin, who hasn’t taken a handoff since 2014, will line up in a variety of spots other than the traditional fullback’s spot, and is equally adept at road grading in the run game or road blocking in the passing game. As a bonus, he’ll serve as a safety valve for Tom Brady and already has a career-high seven catches this season.
Fears, the Patriots’ running backs coach, said Develin’s consistency is what separates the Pro Bowler from others with his same job requirements.
“That’s why he’s so doggone good in the league. He’s very consistent. Very good at doing his job and very unselfish,” said Fears. “He’ll do anything to get his job done and the guys trust him. They really do.’’
So far this season, “the guys” have been a varied group, but Develin doesn’t customize his style to suit individual players.
“My job is what it is and I just have to go out there and try to pave open a hole no matter who the back is and just try to do the best I can to give them space to run,’’ he said.
Next corner up
The Patriots have an open roster spot after placing Eric Rowe on injured reserve this week as the cornerback continues to deal with groin problems that have bothered him for parts of two seasons.
Rowe’s spot likely will be filled in-house, with rookie Duke Dawson a full participant the last two weeks after spending the first two months of the season on IR dealing with a hamstring injury that bit him late in camp.
The Patriots have enjoyed good depth at the position with Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty on the perimeter and Jonathan Jones manning the slot.
Additionally, J.C. Jackson has seen his workload increase lately and fellow rookie Keion Crossen has been in the mix.
Dawson, however, has the skills to crack the rotation, having played both on the edge and in the slot during his time at Florida.
“Since we drafted Duke, he’s come in, he’s worked hard to pick up our terminology, our scheme, he’s done a good job of that. He’s worked hard, [football] is important to him,’’ said Brian Flores, the team’s main play-caller on defense. “He’s obviously had some setbacks, but he’s back in the fold now and he’s just working to get better every day. And that’s really the goal for him, is to try and improve every day in every facet, whether it’s the run game, the pass game, playing the deep ball, at the line of scrimmage with his footwork. There’s plenty for him to work on, just like there is for every one on the team and I think he’s working hard to do that. And if he continues to do that then hopefully he can carve out a little role for himself.’’
A kick in his step
Stephen Gostkowski was named AFC special teams player of the month for October after nailing 11 of 12 field goals and going 15 for 15 on extra points.
Gostkowski’s lone miss came Monday night (a 50-yarder in swirling winds) in a game in which he hit four field goals. Gostkowski also landed 17 touchbacks during October as the Patriots went 4-0.
He became the 19th kicker to hit 350 career field goals when he went 5 for 5 in New England’s 43-40 win over Kansas City that he capped with a walkoff 28-yarder.
It’s the fourth time in the 13-year veteran’s career that he has received the honor.
Rob Gronkowski was a surprise absence from practice Thursday, a day after the tight end said his confidence level was “good.’’
Gronkowski, who played Monday night after being limited all week in practice, has been dealing with back and ankle injuries over the last few weeks.
Starting right guard Shaq Mason, who suffered a calf injury in the win over the Bills, linebacker Nicholas Grigsby (illness), and offensive lineman Brian Schwenke (foot) also were absent from the full-pads session.
Receiver Julian Edelman (illness/ankle), defensive end Deatrich Wise (illness), and tight end Jacob Hollister (hamstring) all returned to the field after missing Wednesday’s walkthrough. Edelman and Hollister were limited, while Wise was removed from the injury report.
Also listed as limited: Michel (knee), linebacker Dont’a Hightower (knee), receiver Josh Gordon (hamstring), tackles Marcus Cannon (concussion) and Trent Brown (ankle), defensive ends John Simon (shoulder) and Geneo Grissom (ankle), long snapper Joe Cardona (shoulder), and punter Ryan Allen (left ankle).