New England Patriots may have hidden fullback candidates

Nov 9, 2020; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New England Patriots fullback Jakob Johnson (47) carries the ball as New York Jets linebacker Neville Hewitt (46) tackles during the second half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 9, 2020; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New England Patriots fullback Jakob Johnson (47) carries the ball as New York Jets linebacker Neville Hewitt (46) tackles during the second half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports /

Although Jakob Johnson is the only visible New England Patriots fullback candidate currently on the 90-man roster, there may be a few candidates who are currently as invisible as Griffin, the fictional Invisible Man created by H.G. Wells.

The German-born Johnson, the first major success from the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program, inherited the first-string fullback job from James Develin following his retirement.

Originally, the plan was that Johnson was going to compete with Danny Vitale, the former Northwestern University superback, but Vitale also retired after sitting out 2020.

We cannot realistically expect that anyone is going to match the performance of Develin, who was a Pro Bowler.

On the other hand, out of 12 rated fullbacks around the NFL, Pro Football Focus gave Johnson the lowest score (45.1) of all of them last season. That’s horrible. Even Charlie Brown received a higher grade from PFF after repeatedly falling on his butt when Lucy yanked the football away from him as he tried to kick it.

You have to take PFF’s grades with a grain of salt, but even so there’s a legitimate concern that the fullback position needs to be enhanced in order to justify a roster spot.

There’s every expectation that Johnson can continue to develop as a player, now that he has a year of experience as the starter. At age 26, he should be entering his prime and mastering his role in Josh McDaniels’ offense. Will it be enough?

But it might be that the Patriots have another fullback on the roster that nobody knows about, including the fullback himself. That would be Patriots mystique at its best, if they manufacture a fullback in summer camp from someone who is currently listed at another position, maybe even an undrafted free agent.

ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. mentioned that rookie Rhamondre Stevenson from Oklahoma might be a candidate to play fullback as well as running back. Stevenson is listed by the Patriots at six feet tall and 231 pounds, although ESPN had previously listed him at a more robust 246 pounds, which may have guided Kiper’s thought process. Stevenson is said to have more affinity for the running back position than fullback, but in any case he is a straight-ahead, between-the-tackles, power back who has the tools to be competitive at the fullback position. With the three-headed monster of Damien Harris, James White and Sony Michel also on the roster, fullback might not be a bad way to obtain playing time.

It’s not uncommon to convert a tight end to fullback. Speaking of which, tight end Matt LaCosse was a star quarterback at Naperville North High School, where he rushed for 1,218 rushing yards and scored 14 rushing touchdowns. At age 29, it might be a bit late for him to pick up a career-broadening assignment, however. LaCosse has appeared in 33 NFL games in his career, 14 of which were for the Patriots, including eight starts.

Second-year man Dalton Keene was a running back at Chatfield High School in Littleton Colorado, where he was named First Team All-State, rushing for 1,175 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. He might have the right skill set to line up in the backfield and block, while also backing up at tight end. Keene was selected in the third round (101st overall) in 2020.

The Patriots also drafted Devin Asiasi in the third round (91st overall) last season. He played tight end and defensive end for De La Salle High School in Concord, CA. If you believe that a third-round draft pick should be a starter by his second year, the Patriots are on track to field five starting-caliber tight ends this season. It makes sense to try one of them out at fullback. Alternatively, if none of them fit well at fullback, it’s not obvious that Jakob Johnson keeps his roster spot over the group of five tight ends, especially if the offense frequently features multiple tight ends. A fifth tight end might make more sense than a first-string fullback.

Defensive linemen have made the transition to fullback on rare occasion. Defensive lineman William “Refrigerator” Perry, a cyborg who was half-human and half-kitchen appliance, was a famous for being the fullback on the1985 Chicago Bears until on a goal-line play he tried to use Hall of Fame halfback Walter Payton as a human battering ram, and head coach Mike Ditka thought better of the experiment and eventually shut down the fullback thing.

A case history could be Patrick Ricard of the Baltimore Ravens. There he was, a defensive tackle from Maine, back in 2017, minding his own business and just struggling to make the team, when the coaching staff asked him, seemingly out of the blue, to take some snaps at fullback. Ricard liked it, caught a few balls that they threw to him, and suddenly they had a 311-pound bundle of aggression at fullback. Within two years, they had a Pro Bowl fullback who was also making plays as a defensive tackle. The Patriots might find someone like that lurking among the UDFA linemen in camp this summer.

Ricard himself might become available as a salary cap casualty this season. He’s no longer getting many game reps on the defensive line, and his PFF grades are lower at fullback than they used to be, for whatever that’s worth. Ricard’s year-to-year drop-off might be more of a clue than his absolute grade.

But here’s what’s really intriguing: the Ravens drafted the top fullback prospect in the fifth round a couple months ago in Ben Mason from the University of Michigan. Ricard is under contract, but his released would free up $2 million in salary cap space and help the Ravens save $1.3 million altogether. If that rumor isn’t out there already, it’s reasonable conjecture based on dollars and cents.

When all is said and done, Johnson is probably the leading candidate to retain the job with the Patriots, but he will not win it without a challenge. It’s entirely possible that the Patriots may find someone not even listed in this article, and there’s no rule that says that the team has to even carry a fullback if they have other players they would rather keep on the roster instead.