FOXBORO — The injury bug has bitten the New England Patriots, specifically the running game, over the last few weeks. Pro Bowl fullback James Develin is the most recent to go down, and could prove the most crucial to be sidelined.
“First of all, I think we’re fortunate to have one James Develin on our team,” coach Bill Belichick said of Develin during a conference call Tuesday. “He works extremely hard, he’s a versatile player that does things for us offensively and in the kicking game, very dependable and has a lot of experience in our system. We’re lucky to have him. To have two of him and to be able to replace him with another James Develin — it’s just unrealistic — and that’s true at a number of positions for us.”
Develin was placed on injured reserve on Monday. He is the latest Patriot, along with left tackle Isaiah Wynn and receiver N’Keal Harry, to be placed on IR with the ability to return. Starting center David Andrews, who was never on the 53-man roster, is unable to return this season after a blood clot in his lungs.
Develin will be out at least eight weeks. His return from a neck injury would mean the Patriots would have to choose whether they want to bring back Harry or Wynn off IR. Only two can return between Develin, Harry and Wynn.
If healthy, Develin will likely be one of them. His presence on the field is monumental. A product of Brown University, Develin has become a crucial short-yardage contributor when the Patriots have had trouble in those situations. Last year, Develin had merely six carries for eight yards, but four went for touchdowns.
Develin, more than anything, is a fixture in the lead blocking role for running back. He was crucial as the Patriots transitioned to a power-running team late last year, serving as a lead blocker on all nine of the team’s rushing touchdowns in the postseason.
“There’s no one person that can do what he (Develin) does,” Belichick said.
Develin was on the field for 41 percent of the offensive snaps during the first two weeks this season. When he missed the Patriots’ 30-14 win over the New York Jets on Sunday, his first absence since 2015, the Patriots struggled on the ground, running for 68 yards on 27 attempts (2.5 yards per carry).
Sony Michel, specifically, could be one who feels the hit with Develin out. Michel ran for 11 yards on nine carries on Sunday.
“James (Develin) is a special guy and he’s certainly played a valuable role in our offense,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said during a conference call on Tuesday. “He’s had a lot to do with our success when he’s on the field and has certainly been recognized for that, deservedly so. He provides a toughness and a leadership and a physicality that we love around here. He’s a great person, great worker, great attitude, always a positive contributor to our performance offensively. So, yeah, you’re not going to just plug in somebody and replace that.”
The plug-and-play scenario likely relates to Jakob Johnson, who is now the lone fullback on the roster. Johnson, an international rookie, was acquired by the Patriots through the International Pathways Program, and played in his first (and only) NFL game against the Jets on Sunday.
Johnson, however, did put together some intriguing tape during his time with the Patriots this preseason. While he possesses the physicality, McDaniels alluded to the the Patriots not expecting Johnson to come in and fill that exact role.
“I think the goal for us is not to replicate what we did last year; it’s to try to figure out how we can be the best version of ourselves this year with the personnel that we have playing and available for us each week this season,” McDaniels said. “So, we’re not going to try to force somebody to do something that somebody else did last year if they’re not suited for it. We’ll try to figure out how to use their strengths to their advantage and to our team’s advantage, and try to go out there and be productive offensively with what we have now.”