FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots suffered a big blow Monday afternoon when James Develin, the man they count on to deliver the big blows on offense, was placed on injured reserve.
The rugged fullback suffered a neck injury against the Dolphins two weeks ago, and though he was able to reenter that game after a short trip to the medical tent, he missed all of practice last week and wasn’t spotted in the locker room.
According to a league source, Develin’s injury is not considered too serious, and there’s a chance he could return this season.
Develin joined rookie receiver N’Keal Harry and left tackle Isaiah Wynn as players placed on injured reserve after making the initial 53-man roster. Teams can bring back two of those players after they’ve spent eight weeks on the list.
Develin, a Pro Bowler two seasons ago, is one of the league’s best path clearers, smashing his 6-foot-3-inch, 255-pound body into defensive lineman and linebackers to create space in the running game. He’s also excelled in blitz pickup, as a short-yardage specialist, and as a receiver.
Teammates marvel at his weight room work, and he’s one of the most popular players in the locker room.
“I’ve never had a better teammate in 12 years of football,’’ Matthew Slater said Monday. “He’s the best teammate I’ve ever been around, barring none. He’s a tremendous human being, but he’s always about putting this team first. He’s always been about sacrificing for the greater good. And when you talk about everything this organization hopes to stand for, nobody embodies it better than James.’’
New England promoted fullback Jakob Johnson from the practice squad last week, which may have been a harbinger that Develin could miss significant time.
Johnson came to the Patriots via the NFL’s International Player Pathway program, and Bill Belichick talked Monday about the impressive progression the German-born player has made since arriving in April.
Belichick said that when the IPP list came out, there wasn’t anyone that stood out, and that Johnson “was not on our radar.’’
The coach got a recommendation from Butch Jones, Johnson’s coach at Tennessee, so the club signed him.
“I can’t say that we were excited to have him, but based on what Butch said, you know, [we] felt like he was a good player to work with, would work hard, would really try to get better, was a good teammate, and all of those things he had showed at Tennessee,’’ Belichick said. “And I would say he definitely started out as the 91st person on the roster and a long, long, long way to go.’’
Belichick said Johnson made excellent progress both on the field and off. The coach said his athleticism and toughness were on display during preseason practices, including the joint sessions with the Lions and Titans, and in the exhibition games.
Belichick stopped short of calling Johnson’s rise equal to that of Stephen Neal, who went from college wrestling star to standout NFL guard, but that it was “somewhere in that neighborhood.’’
“What he’s done has been remarkable,’’ said the coach. “He’s one of the first players here every morning, he studies his note cards. You see him sitting in the dining room just studying note cards, just going over his plays. He puts literally every ounce of energy he has into this job and our team, and he’s totally earned everybody’s respect.’’
Johnson’s road to Foxborough started in his native Stuttgart — his father is a Florida native who served in the military — before he moved to Jacksonville to live with an aunt and play a year at a local high school and “get recruited by colleges.’’
He landed at Tennessee, where he originally played linebacker before moving to tight end.
When Johnson, whose first name is pronounced “YAH-kob,” made it to the Patriots, he knew where he stood, but he had a plan.
“I knew when I got to the team I was not going to stand out right away or anything like that,’’ Johnson said Monday. “I knew that I was going to have to focus every day to get better. Focus on the coaching points that I get, and that’s pretty much been the process, and I stuck with it.’’
He said the IPP teachers were instrumental in getting him ready for the NFL experience. Their message: Take it day by day.
“Every day evaluating your performance, no matter what kind of drill you’re doing, just finding things to get better and writing them down and then improving on those the next day, and that’s pretty much I’ve been sticking with,’’ he said.
He said coaches always remind practice squad players to be ready to play, so he knew it was a possibility. Still, he acknowledged there were “some nerves” when he got to the locker room Sunday.
Now Johnson’s role could be expanding as the Patriots look to replace Develin.
“He’s really embraced his opportunity,’’ Slater said. “He’s taken coaching, and he’s tried to go out and apply it every single day. It’s really great to see that pay off for a young man like that.’’