FOXBORO -- For a team that set records with the way in which it used tight ends, the Patriots sure have been lacking in numbers at that position.
With no Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui or DJ Williams available last Friday night against the Eagles, New England went into its preseason game with former offensive tackle Steve Maneri as its lone tight end.
The team buttressed that spot when it re-signed undrafted rookie Justin Jones this week, but the most dependable answer for its tight-end depth woes was a player occupying a roster spot all along.
Fullback James Develin has worked out with Patriots tight ends since the spring -- through training camp he performed practice drills with the tight ends, not the running backs -- and showed up in the passing game versus Philadelphia by catching two throws on two targets for 27 yards and a touchdown.
Still a fullback in title, Develin has consistently shown he has reliable hands, and over the course of his two years with the Patriots he has received the hard-earned confidence of quarterback Tom Brady.
"I don’t think there is a better fullback in the league," Brady said, "so I’m so happy he’s on our team. And what he’s been able to accomplish for our team has been awesome. He brings so much in terms of his toughness, his attitude. It’s that one position on offense that can really bring a lot of toughness. You get it out of that fullback position. He does whatever the team asks him to do. I can’t say enough good things about him because I think so highly of him."
But it's not just Develin's ability to lower his neck roll and bowl over people that makes him effective. When he gets his Mickey Mouse mitts on footballs, they're usually caught. He combines that split-second of grace with a wrecking-ball demeanor to make him a sought-after weapon when Brady drops back to pass.
"I want to get it to him, believe me," Brady said. "I want to throw it and see if he can make the defense pay because that’s what he does such a great job of. You give it to him for a four-yard gain, and he comes up and, ‘Bam!’ he runs over a safety or a corner. That’s a great spark for our team. I want to give it to him as many times as I can in those positions."
With Gronkowski and Hoomanawanui unlikely to play on Friday, Develin will likely have a few more opportunities to give New England a spark when it hosts Carolina in its third preseason game.