FOXBORO -- Once the Patriots traded AJ Derby to the Broncos for a fifth-round pick earlier this week, they were left with just two tight ends on their roster. While those two tight ends -- Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett -- have played as two of the best tight ends in football this season, it's a position group that has been considerably thinned.
Until coach Bill Belichick adds another player at that spot, James Develin would be the logical "next man up." A position group unto himself as the team's lone active fullback -- the other fullback in the locker room is practice-squad player Glenn Gronkowski -- Develin meets with Patriots tight ends and coach Brian Daboll on a daily basis because the fullback and tight-end responsibilities in the Patriots offense are similar, particularly in the run game.
As much time as he spends with that group, Develin tries to absorb what he can when it comes to the nuances of the position.
"I always kind of try to prepare, obviously, for my fullback role, but then in any other role that I might be called upon for," Develin said on Thursday. "A couple years ago, we had a bunch of injuries during the offseason program, during OTAs, and I filled in a little bit at tight end. I try to keep myself familiar with all those techniques and that tight end role so if the day were to come where I needed to go out there and do it, I'd be able to go out there and do it."
When the Patriots began the season relying more on the run, Develin was called upon to play a relatively significant role in the offense. He averaged 21.3 snaps per game through the first three games of the season, but that number has fallen to 13.6 since Tom Brady's return from a four-game suspension. Still, his role can be a critical one.
The Patriots' running game faltered last season after both Blount and Dion Lewis went down with season-ending injuries. Having Develin in the mix as an extra blocker would not have guaranteed a more efficient attack, but it may have helped the team's running-game woes late in the year.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels now has the luxury of bringing Develin onto the field when he wants some added muscle for his blocking schemes, and should the Patriots need a tight end in a pinch, Develin could do that too.
"A lot of times, especially in the blocking game, really the only difference [between fullback and tight end] is that I'm five yards off the ball in the backfield and they're up on the line," Develin said. "The angles are a little bit different. But a lot of times the assignment is typcially the same thing. It's just the technique of getting there and the angles that you take.
"Then in the passing game, as a tight end, there's just a lot more routes and stuff like that. I try to work on that to help me as a fullback to be a little bit better in space . . . It's a sybiotic relationship."
As it is, Develin will line up occasionally outside. Though not a threat as a receiver in that spot in the same way that Gronkowski or Bennett would be, he understands some of the different looks tight ends have to be comfortable with.
If an emergency arose and he was asked to fill that role, he wouldn't hesitate.
"There's a little bit of carry-over depending on what we're doing or whatever play we have called where I'll line up on the line," he said. "But that's kind of what a fullback has to do. You kind of have to be able to be thrown into whatever position on the field that you gotta do and you gotta just do your job."
FOXBORO -- The move did not require Olympic-caliber speed or other-worldly quickness. There was a subtle head fake, a foot in the ground, a shoulder turn. All of a sudden, Rob Gronkowski was wide open in the middle of the field and reeling in a Tom Brady pass for 37 yards in the fourth quarter of last weekend's win over the Steelers.
Bill Belichick raved about the play on Patriots.com days after the fact. What Gronkowski did to safety Robert Golden was a thing of beauty in the eyes of the coach.
"This really is a good look at Rob’s route-running ability," Belichick said. "Rob comes in on Golden and takes it down the middle, like he’s going to run a crossing pattern or over route, and gives him a good move here and bends it back out. The receivers clear out the corners. That’s a lot of space there."
Gronkowski's move, combined with the steady diet of crossing routes teams have seen from the Patriots in recent weeks, helped set up the play that led to LeGarrette Blount's second touchdown of the day. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end was like a power pitcher who had been throwing fastballs for six innings and then pulled the string with a change-up in the seventh. Golden was helpless.
"The number of times we’ve run Rob on over routes, and to come back and counter it -- it looks like Golden is trying to guess on the route and undercut it a little bit. Rob comes back away from it and turns it into a big play and sets up our last touchdown. Really a well-executed play by Rob.
“Sometimes you think it’s all size and strength, but as a technique route runner, he’s very good, too."
A quick mid-route shimmy. A look in one direction before heading in another. A nudge -- sometimes picking up a flag, sometimes not. They're all elements of route-running that Gronkowski has added to his tool belt over the course of his seven years with the Patriots. Considered the team's resident frat boy, it's sometimes hard to remember that he's one of the longest-tenured players on the team, a captain, and that he's picked up his share veteran tricks along the way.
"I’ve definitely had to work it out plenty since I’ve been here," Gronkowski said of his route-running. "To be successful in this organization and this offense you just got to be working on it big time. It’s not just you just come in and you have it. From day one I remember I could barely even get open but just learning from Tom, from all my coaches here, it definitely helps out going out and focusing on your route detail.
"Sometimes, necessarily, you don’t have to be the best skilled player out on the field to get open. It’s just learning the game of football, how to get open, what move to make is definitely all part of it."
Getting open is only part of it.
What he does with the football in his hands to run away from defenders is something that comes naturally. What hasn't always clicked for Gronkowski is how to finish. He has a tendency to want to impose his will on opponents at the ends of plays, running them over and leaving them behind, or embarrassing them and their loved ones by dragging them for inordinate amounts of time as he churns forward for extra yards.
But in recent years, he's accepted that not every play needs to end with an exclamation point. He has come to understand that oftentimes a simple period will do.
Take his 37-yard catch against the Steelers, for example. When he got near the sideline and faced down a Pittsburgh defensive back, instead of trying to trample him to get to the goal line, he lowered his pads, shielded his legs, and went down.
"You always got to protect yourself whenever you can," he said. "You know, when the journey is done, if you’re running the ball, just get down and don’t take that extra shot. You can always show your toughness, you can have five guys take you down, but really that’s sometimes not the case.
"You really want to show that you just want to get down, you want to preserve your body for the next play when the journey is done and you’re not going to get any more yards."
More often than not, it's the prudent choice. Mature, even.
"It started coming in the last few years," Gronkowski said. "I remember a couple times my rookie year I'd just try and ‘Boom!' I remember I’d be like, ‘Oh, that one hurt.’ It hurt to go one more inch.
"Definitely, when the journey is over and you know you gave it all -- you’re not going to be able to carry five guys, sometimes not even two guys -- whenever you just feel like you need to get down, you need to get down. It’s a physical game. Every play is going to be physical so save it for the next one."
Spoken like a savvy veteran.