FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — James Develin has spent most of his seven seasons with the Patriots doing the kind of dirty work that rarely gets noticed on the field.
A special teams player and fullback used mostly as a blocker, he entered 2018 having not registered a carry in either of his previous two seasons.
Now, it seems as if nearly every time Develin touches the ball, it leads to points.
Each of his first three rushes this season produced touchdowns. He had a 1-yard TD run at Tennessee on Nov. 11. He added bookend touchdown runs against Minnesota on Sunday, scoring the Patriots’ first touchdown of the game from 1 yard in the first quarter and their final one in the fourth from 2 yards to help secure the 24-10 victory .
His two TD runs against the Vikings set a career high. And it’s fortunate timing for a Patriots offense that has had trouble at times this season getting the ball into the end zone on the ground.
It’s also helping position Develin as New England’s X-factor with the playoffs approaching.
“Honestly, I’ve never dreamt about a game like this,” Develin said. “This is the first time I’ve ever thought about it. I know my role, and that is to get these other guys in the end zone, but it’s a really cool experience to get in myself.”
Develin in many ways is a posterchild for the long list of undrafted players that have become integral contributors for the Patriots under coach Bill Belichick.
A defensive lineman in college, he played in just one game after he was initially signed by New England in 2012. But he has appeared in all 16 games in every season since, the lone exception being 2015 when he spent the entire season on injured reserve with a broken leg.
Develin’s efforts were rewarded with his first Pro Bowl selection last season as a fullback-tight end hybrid.
Belichick said recently that Develin is one of his most versatile players.
“Pretty much whatever we ask him to do, he does a good job of, whether it’s blocking, playing in the kicking game, catching the ball, fighting for extra yards in tough, short-yardage situations, whether that’s after a throw or a catch,” Belichick said. “That’s really important to have a lot of players on your team that do that, and he’s as solid and dependable in his role as probably anyone we have in a situation like that, a role like that.”
Tom Brady throws to him occasionally as a safety option. This season it’s been more frequent, with Develin already posting a career-high nine receptions to go along with his recent production in the run game.
His increased role hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates.
Each time Develin has gotten the ball across the goal line this season, it has set off some of the most exuberant celebrations by members of the offense.
Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson said it comes from the respect they have for him.
“He stepped up big. He’s always blocking, lead blocking, third down, first down, whatever,” Patterson said. “His name was called and … he got the opportunity to carry the ball a lot, and he did a hell of a job.”
The Patriots entered the Vikings game with only five rushing touchdowns on the season and before Sunday had only twice produced multiple rushing TDs in a game in 2018.
Sunday saw the return of last season’s short-yardage specialist Rex Burkhead, but he is coming off a neck injury that caused him to spend time on injured reserve.
The continued production of rookie Sony Michel and Develin’s emergence will likely mean Burkhead’s opportunities could come more in the passing game.
But even if Develin’s primary function in the game plan reverts to a blocking capacity, he said it’s a role he embraces. It already has earned him the tag of “honorary lineman” by members of the offensive line.
“Whenever my number’s called, I’ve just gotta go out there and get whatever we need done,” he said. “Whether it’s on the goal line and trying to get into the end zone or if it’s short yardage and trying to get a first down, I mean that’s the goal on every play.”