FOXBORO -- Through the early nomadic period of James Develin's career, he focused on doing whatever he could to keep a job.
He was a dominant defensive lineman at Brown, but wasn't drafted to the NFL. At 6-foot-3 and about 250 pounds, he dangled himself as an outside linebacker in order to make a roster as a free agent but couldn't get a bite.
After a stint in the Arena Football League he found himself in the United Football League and transitioned to fullback, making himself more attractive to NFL suitors and landing on the practice squads of the Bengals and later the Patriots.
Since making the 53-man roster early last season, Develin has had a home in New England. He played 16 regular season games with the Patriots in 2013 and has drawn exuberant praise from three of the team's top football minds: coach Bill Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio and quarterback Tom Brady.
“James is great," Brady said during the spring. "I love being out here with him. He’s been such a great player, performer for our team. Whatever role we’ve asked of him, he’s done it to the best he possibly can do. He brings a great attitude, emotion. He’s a positive guy. He’s a great teammate in the locker room. I can’t say enough great things about him. He’s been such a great person and player for this team. Every time you put him out there, good things happen, so it’s fun to be a part of that.”
But that doesn't mean Develin's transformation as a player has ceased.
“It’s never good to be comfortable in football,” Develin said. “You’re always trying to learn. You’re always just trying to get better each and every day, work hard, work on your weaknesses, work on your strengths. Comfort is not something I ever try to think about. I’m just trying to always learn, get better, add some more value to my game and just become the best player and help this team.”
During Patriots OTAs, minicamp and training camp Develin has continued to develop his all-around ability. While he's still taken reps at fullback in running game repetitions and goal-line situations, he's performed individual drills almost exclusively with the team's tight ends.
During one practice period on Saturday, Develin joined Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui as the trio ran patterns from the tight end spot and caught balls from Brady.
"It's fun," Develin said of working with the tight ends. "Anytime you get the opportunity to get the ball, it's like living a little bit of a dream. It's fun. I'm just trying to go out there and help the team no matter where they throw me and what I have to do. I just have to go out and do it to the best of my ability."
New England's tight end depth has come under some scrutinity with eyes glued to Gronkowski and his surgically-repaired right knee. Hoomanawanui is a dependable set of hands with big-game experience, but otherwise the Patriots don't have many proven options.
DJ Williams is a veteran "move" tight end who could earn a spot, but he'll be in competition with undrafted rookies Justin Jones and Asa Watson to make the team.
Develin's wide-ranging skill set and his knowledge of the offense might make him the Patriots' best tertiary option at tight end.
"The unique thing about James is he’s a very versatile player," Caserio said before Sunday's practice. "We saw that going back to last season. He was able to line up in the backfield, at tight end, detach from the formation. James is very smart, works very, very hard. He had a great offseason – there are a lot of guys, but just specific to James, had a great offseason. Really as a player, from day one that he entered the program to where he is now, he’s really improved. A lot of that, he’s put in a lot of time. It’s a credit to him, but he’s smart, he’s versatile so he gives you a little bit of flexibility because he can do a number of different things."
Caserio went on to explain that Develin can lead the point of offensive attack in the running game as a lead blocker as well as block on the line of scrimmage.
Develin also showed that he's comfortable lining up as a receiver last season in Week 16 against the Ravens when he helped set up Shane Vereen for a four-yard touchdown catch.
Lined up about four yards off the right tackle, Develin took his place in the slot and ran upfield to freeze rookie safety Matt Elam. He also slowed the progress of linebacker Jameel McClain, who couldn't get to Vereen in time on his out-route. The result was an easy score.
"We lined him up out there out kind of detached from the formation," Caserio said. "We ran a route with he and Vereen and because he was able to execute his assignment, we had a play there. James has done a lot of good things since he’s been here. He’s earned all of his opportunities with his performance and his work ethic."
For Develin, moments like those have defined his career.
"It's not something I do often," Develin said of lining up as a wideout, "and it's not something I've really done in the past. But I'll do it and I'll try to do it to the best of my ability, make some plays out there and just add to my versatility. That's the name of the game."
For all the spots he's been deployed, Develin still enjoys playing the position that earned him a spot in the league. In two days of full-contact padded practices, he's made a handful of loud blocks as a fullback that have either led to long gains or goal-line touchdowns.
After a few successful plays, he's reacted with unbridled excitement. At one point he performed Stevan Ridley's pattented kick-the-door-down touchdown dance when his block sprung Ridley for a long run.
While catching passes from Brady is fun, laying a big hit is as satisfying as it gets for Develin.
"Oh my god, yeah," he said. "Fullback is an awesome position. Coming from the defensive side of the ball, all I really knew was hitting, making tackles. Getting those good blocks in is what I thrive off of now. I've always been an emo guy. Football is such a game of emotion, I'm not shy in showing how I feel. Especially when we're scoring touchdowns or doing something good, I'm always trying to get down there and celebrate with my teammates. That's football, it's a team game. You're supposed to show emotion."
In his time in New England, he's shown much more than that. The 26-year-old with an Ivy League degree in mechanical engineering has demonstrated the mental capacity to handle multiple different assignments. And in so doing, he's made himself a valued cog in the Patriots offense.
"All the things that I've been doing has really helped me fully conceptualize the entire offense," he said. "Whether it's wide receiver spots or running back spots or even line blocking schemes. I've really been able to grasp it this past year and try to learn the offense as a complete unit rather than what I'm trying to do on this certain play. It's definitely been valuable, and I'm just trying to soak it in."