Recently retired fullback James Develin is a New England Patriots icon whose presence and imprint on the organization will never be dulled. He was a battering ram out of the backfield, and a locker room gem. However, his replacement, Dan Vitale, who signed a one-year, $1.3 million deal in the offseason, could be a much more dangerous weapon than the retired veteran ever was during his Patriots tenure.
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Vitale is what has been described as a super back. Back in 2016 at the NFL Combine when Vitale was coming out of Northwestern, the Wheaton, Illinois native registered the following results: 40-yard dash (4.60 seconds), bench press (30 reps), vertical jump (38.5 inches), broad jump (10’3”), 20-yard shuttle (4.12 seconds) and 60-yard shuttle (11.36 seconds) all ranked first among fullbacks.
While he didn’t run the ball much at Northwestern, the Wildcats used him successfully as a receiver out of the backfield. During his four years there, Vitale caught 135 passes for 1,426 yards and 11 TDs.
For whatever reason, Vitale’s old teams, the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns, never saw fit to use him as a weapon of this magnitude, despite his obvious athletic gifts. ESPN’s Rob Demovsky seemed confused as to why we haven’t seen Vitale featured more on offense:
“In training camp last year they used him all over the field to catch balls: in the flat, in the slot and down the sideline,” Demovsky explained. “He showed he could catch anything. And then during the season they barely used him that way, why he was odd. Go look at the 27-yarder he caught against the Broncos (a modified wheel route down the seam that went for a touchdown). Why didn’t they do more of that? As a blocker, he’s your typical fullback. But he sets himself apart with his ability to catch.”
Here is the play Demovsky was referring to, it happened in a Week 3 win over the Denver Broncos. It was the only pass Vitale was thrown in the game, and it went for 27 yards, and it was just shy of being his first pro TD.
Over his four-year career, Vitale has been thrown to just 24 times, and he’s made just 15 catches for 145 yards and no TDs. Something tells me Josh McDaniels plans to use Vitale a little more than he has been in the past.
As much as Patriots fans love Develin, and with good reason, if Jarrett Stidham finds Vitale on a few wheel routes that turn into touchdown passes, the faithful will make room for the super back.
Remember, Vitale is still just 26 years old, and seemingly ready for a breakout season.