The Patriots have been one of the primary drivers of the fullback resurgence that's taken place across the NFL in recent seasons. Since 2013, the Pats made James Develin a significant part of their offense, climaxing with Develin leading the way to a championship in 2018.
With Develin's career coming to an unfortunate early end this offseason, New England has turned to free agent Danny Vitale to help fill a sizable hole in their offense. In 2019, the team's ground game took a step back and now they hope Vitale can spark a resurgence.
"There's only a handful of teams that use fullbacks now these days," said Vitale, on his decision to join the Patriots earlier this offseason. "Seeing all the amazing things that James Develin did over the last couple years, that's obviously enticing for a fullback.
"[James] was really a role model at the position. As a fullback a lot of people don't typically notice how important that role can be. I think it was pretty clear how important James really was to this Patriot team."
Though technically a fullback, Vitale has done a little of everything in his four-year career. That versatility traces all the way back to when he was in college at Northwestern, playing a position the coaches called a "Superback."
"Basically it was just like an H-back, a move tight end," explained Vitale, who also welcomed a new daughter, Bella, on April 16th. "I played a lot in the slot, on the wing, fullback when we used it, and played a lot of receiver basically as well. Just a versatile player who can do a little bit everything and it was good for me because it kept me on the field."
While Develin was best known primarily for bone-crunching lead blocks, Vitale could bring a different twist to the position, feeling that his experience across the NFL helped not only with digesting a new playbook, but with playing different roles.
"I kind of had to learn how to play as a different type of fullback in different types of offenses," said Vitale. "When I was in Tampa Bay I was more of a tight end, wing-type player and then in Cleveland kind of a hand-in-the-ground, bruising type fullback. And then my time in Green Bay I did a little bit of both.
"I think the biggest thing that I've learned about my style over the last couple years is being able to be versatile. Learn as much as I can, learn as many spots as I can, so whenever they need somebody to step in, I can fill that role."
As for his strengths, Vitale hoped to expand on the career-high seven catches he had in 2019. While Develin topped out with 12 catches in 2018, Vitale is surprisingly fluid and athletic with his route running and comfortable catching the ball. It could give Josh McDaniels new ways to incorporate the position into his attack.
"I think my abilities with the ball in my hands as well, that's a huge advantage in my style of play is being able to be a playmaker when you need it," said Vitale. "I think it showed a little bit last year in Green Bay, I'm looking forward to hopefully getting more opportunities to do that here in the near future."