Play of fullbacks will be key to Patriots’ offensive success in 2020

The Patriots weren’t the same rushing offense in 2019 after James Develin went down. To restart their run game, they’ll need to rely on their fullbacks.

While many NFL observers and fans like to believe that the fullback is a dying position, don’t tell Bill Belichick that.

For that matter, don’t tell Josh McDaniels either.

The New England Patriots have been relying heavily on fullbacks in their offensive schemes for years now. From 2012-2019, their main man at FB was James Develin. Patrick Pass was also a key fullback from 2000-2006, as was Heath Evans from 2005-2008.

In 2018 — just two seasons ago — the Pats won the Super Bowl. They also finished second in the league in snap percentage on offense with two or more running backs on the field (behind only the San Francisco 49ers). The Niners ran 59% of their plays with 2+ RBs in the formation that season and the Patriots ran 57% of their plays with 2+ RBs in the formation, according to Football Outsiders.

No other team ran more than 37% of their plays with two or more running backs in the lineup that year.

In 2019, Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight wrote a piece called “Reports Of The Fullback’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated,” in which he pointed out that once again, the Patriots and the 49ers employed fullbacks the most in the league.

The only problem for the Patriots was that this article came out after just six weeks of regular season action in mid-October of last year. Develin was lost to IR with a neck injury on September 23, and his replacement Jakob Johnson followed suit and also ended up on IR (with a shoulder injury) on October 14 — just three days before Hermsmeyer’s article went live.

New England football fans can help fill in the blanks with what happened next after both Develin and Johnson ended up lost for the season. The Patriots experimented with tight end Eric Tomlinson and linebacker Elandon Roberts at fullback through various points of the season in October, November, and December, but ultimately, the running game never looked the same as it did in September and early October.

Similarly, the Patriots offense got worse as the year wore on.

Just how important is the fullback position to this offense? Answer: very.

Now, is the lack of having a true fullback in the lineup the only reason why?

Of course not. Injuries and shuffling along the offensive line all year certainly didn’t help, and Sony Michel also didn’t do his own cause much justice by having a relatively poor second season compared to a strong rookie showing.

Still, it’s clear to anyone who’s followed this team for any extended period of time that the fullback is a key component to a successful New England offense. When the Patriots have a good fullback serving as their lead blocker for their running back, it takes pressure off the quarterback to make constant plays with his arm.

One need look no further than the recent 2018 postseason for example. Tom Brady was good that year but certainly not great — not by his own standards at least. The Patriots rode their defense and a bulldozing rush attack — captained by Michel, Develin, and the offensive line — to their sixth Lombardi Trophy.

With no Brady in 2020 — and no Develin either — it’s now up to Jakob Johnson and new addition Danny Vitale to pick up the mantle and lead the charge once more.

If either one of these players (and ideally, both) can replicate some of the success of their forebears in New England fullback history, the Patriots just might have an offense that could make some noise in 2020 and help Jarrett Stidham’s life be a bit easier as a first-time starter in the league.