Patriots add insurance for James Develin in fullback Danny Vitale

The New England Patriots have reportedly signed ex-Green Bay Packers fullback Danny Vitale to a new deal in NFL free agency.

If there’s one thing that the New England Patriots are going to do better in 2020 than in 2019 on offense, it’s going to be running the football.

The Pats ranked just 18th out of 32 teams in rushing yards per game last season. Even more worrisome, they were one of just nine squads that averaged less than 4.0 yards per team carry all season long — and they were the only playoff qualifier from that ignominious group (unsurprisingly).

Many analysts and fans pointed to the season-ending neck injury to fullback James Develin as being the turning point in New England’s run game. After all, Develin had been so effective for so many years as the lead blocker in the Patriots’ rushing offense — not just for Sony Michel in 2018, but also for LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, James White, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, etc. over the years.

Granted, Michel was uninspiring for great stretches of time last season, and it’s difficult to pinpoint Develin’s absence as the sole reason for Michel’s sophomore slump entirely. The shuffling offensive line also deserves a fair share of the blame — as does Michel himself for not finding the best rushing lanes and hitting the hole with full acceleration.

All this being said, it’s clear that the Patriots need a healthy fullback in their offense for their run game to work at maximum efficiency.

Especially now with Tom Brady headed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Patriots’ passing game looking as uninspired on paper as it has in over two decades, coordinator Josh McDaniels is going to need to lean on the run in 2020 to move the chains and put up points.

Enter Danny Vitale.

According to Bleacher Report’s Blake Schuster, Vitale has agreed to sign with New England in free agency. The 26-year-old former Green Bay Packers fullback is five years younger than Develin, and more importantly, he doesn’t have Develin’s injury history or high mileage as a player that’s seen a ton of regular season and playoff snaps over the years.

Vitale was a sixth-round draft pick of the Buccaneers back in 2016. He didn’t make the team’s final roster but stuck around on the practice squad that season until he got signed by the Cleveland Browns mid-season.

The fullback played in nine games for the Browns as a rookie — starting three — and while he didn’t have any rush attempts, he did manage to snag four receptions for 27 yards. He upped his playing time in 2017 with Cleveland, playing in 15 games and starting in six of them — although his production actually dipped (three total catches for just 19 yards).

He was injured at the start of the 2018 season and landed on the Browns’ IR before getting released and then scooped up by the Packers. He played in five games for Green Bay that year, catching just one pass for two yards.

Last season, Vitale’s role increased in Matt LaFleur’s offense. He played in 15 games and started in four of them, catching seven passes for 97 yards over the course of the season. He also logged his first career rush attempt, toting the ball for three yards.

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As Schuster notes, though, Vitale offers decent size and strength when it comes to pass protection. He’s also a solid contributor on special teams, which should endear him to Bill Belichick. If he makes the Patriots’ final roster, he’ll probably be used primarily for that aspect of the game — as well as his availability as an emergency replacement option for Develin if the veteran gets hurt again.

 

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