ATLANTA — Inside the Hyatt Regency, where the Patriots are staying this week in Atlanta, James Develin took his seat at a podium in a ballroom late Wednesday afternoon and held court.
Across the ballroom, Tom Brady sat in front of dozens of reporters, cameras and bright lights. Next to Develin was Julian Edelman, who drew a similar crowd, and down in the far corner, Rob Gronkowski entertained a large audience.
But seated at the first media riser near the entrance of the ballroom, Develin didn’t draw more than a handful of reporters at a time during his 30-minute session.
It’s easy to overlook the Patriots fullback, who’s in his sixth season with the team — not including a lost 2015 when he broke his leg in the preseason — and appearing in his fourth Super Bowl on Sunday. But in an age when fullbacks seem to be a dying breed, Develin has stayed standing — and plowing defenders in his path along the way.
“It’s given me an opportunity to do what I love to do for as long as I’ve been doing it,” Develin said. “It’s really, really fun. I always say that the fullback position will never be completely dead.”
Develin’s story is well-documented. Once a defensive line standout at Brown University, Develin went undrafted in the NFL, but worked to keep his dream alive. Following brief stints in the Arena Football League and United Football League, he joined the Bengals’ practice squad in 2010, and ultimately was waived in 2012.
That’s when he caught on with the Patriots, and Develin has taken full advantage with one of the few organizations that still values having a fullback.
“I think James epitomizes what hard work, diligence, physical and mental toughness, determination, how all that can result in success and a very successful career,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He has a role that’s important and we have a lot of roles like that, that are important to the team. It’s not always the guy that scores a touchdown or hits the quarterback. It’s about everybody doing their part and he’s been dependable in his assignments, his toughness, his durability, his blocking and doing other things when he needs to do them. ...
“I think he has as much respect as anybody in the locker room. He doesn’t say a lot, but he works as hard as anybody and he’s a very team-oriented guy who always does what’s best for the team.”
This season, as the Patriots have committed to the run game, Develin has been more important than he’s ever been. He scored four rushing touchdowns during the regular season, but his true value has been in clearing space for Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead. Running backs coach Ivan Fears estimated that about 90 percent of their runs are run behind Develin.
Develin was critical in the Patriots’ AFC Championship victory. He played a season-high 41 snaps, and he played a huge role in all three of the Patriots’ late go-ahead touchdowns, creating a path on Michel’s fourth-and-1 score, Burkhead’s TD with under a minute left, and Burkhead’s game-winning plunge in overtime.
“That’s what you want as a fullback,” Develin said. “You want to be called on in those high-pressure situations and make your block and do your job. ...
“I look at myself as kind of the bodyguard of sorts to these running backs. I think it’s my role to clear open space for these guys and make sure these guys don’t get to my running backs.”
Given his volume, Develin’s durability has been a bit surprising. He hasn’t missed a game in three seasons since returning from that broken leg, and it’s easy to see why he garners so much respect.
“He’s been critical for us,” Fears said. “A good fullback is hard to find, especially a guy that can deliver and sustain and has durability to be there week after week after week. With the beating that he takes and he’s dishing out, to be there every week, that’s exciting. That in itself has been a blessing for us.”
Come Sunday, Develin won’t receive the bulk of the attention, but if the Patriots are able to bring a sixth Super Bowl home, he’ll certainly be a big reason why, especially against a Rams front that may be the best the Patriots have seen all year.
“Not that it’s more important, it’s important,” Fears said. “It’s been that way every week. They’re a good football team, and in these playoffs, that’s all we’ve seen is very good defenses. James has stepped up and we’ve been able to find a way to get it done, and we’re going to need it again. We’re going to need it again.”