Fullback Jakob Johnson, who had been filling in admirably for injured fullback James Develin, went down with a shoulder injury in the first half and never returned to action. On Friday, New England received the bad news that Johnson’s injury was serious, forcing the team to place him on injured reserve, according to Jim McBride of the Boston Globe.
With Johnson ineligible to return until Week 16 at the earliest and with only two players from IR able to be pulled back onto the active roster, it likely means the injury is season-ending for the rookie out of Tennessee.
Johnson, a native of Germany who signed as a member of the International Pathway Program, saw a vast improvement in his run blocking in the early season when he split time between the practice squad and active roster.
He helped open holes for Sony Michel during victories in Week 4 and 5. With Johnson in the game as a blocker, the Patriots were more effective moving the ball both on the ground and through the air. They even got the rookie involved in the receiving game.
Now, New England has nowhere else to turn at fullback. Without a key piece of the offense, the Patriots running game may not be able to hit full stride.
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What Can the Patriots Do at Fullback?
New England is one of very few teams in the NFL that still utilizes a fullback heavily in its offense. Last year, with James Develin in the backfield, the Patriots used him as a blocker to open holes, as a goal-line rusher, and even as a tight end out of necessity occasionally.
Unless the Patriots feel comfortable going without a fullback or using a tight end and Brandon Bolden to help make up for the loss, the obvious direction is to sign a free agent.
The top option available is former New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars fullback, Tommy Bohanon. The 29-year-old is currently a free agent and most recently suited up for Green Bay in the offseason.
While he didn’t see a lot of touches, he helped pave the way for several running backs like Leonard Fournette, Bilal Powell, and Chris Ivory.
Another option is Aaron Ripkowski. The former Packers fullback hasn’t played in a regular-season game since 2017 but has shown his ability to block well and move opposing defensive linemen with his strength.
A Big Loss
The Patriots losing Johnson, a second fullback to go down injured this season, is one that will heavily impact the New England offense. For starters, Sony Michel was just starting to get going while Tom Brady could use the extra protection.
Now, New England is back to square one when it comes to run blocking out of the backfield. And if the second half is any indication of how poorly the run game performed without a fullback or healthy Matt LaCosse, it can indeed get worse.
The Patriots now desperately await Week 10 when Isaiah Wynn can return to the lineup as he continues to recover from turf toe. If Wynn is unable to return, thus losing a second-straight season to injury, it would be Develin, in all likelihood, who gets pulled back off IR.