FOXBOROUGH - Football, as we know and love it, is changing.
Defenses are being watched like hawks, susceptible to penalties for the slightest of bumps or grabs. Big, tone-setting hits and tough, physical styles of play are on the endangered list, as the NFL continues its crusade to legislate all of that out of the game in the name of player safety. And while there is nothing wrong with trying cut down on injuries, particularly concussions, which represent an epidemic that has run rampant across the sport, at its core, football is a physical, sometimes violent game. Things of that nature are going to happen without planning or thinking, no matter how much the league tries to slant the rules.
All of this is why it's so cool to see a player like Patriots fullback James Develin not only play a prominent role in the team's offense but succeed and thrive in doing so. Develin, a second-year guy out of Brown University who manned defensive end, wound up playing all 16 games for the Pats at fullback last season, his first in the NFL during which he was a member of an active roster. He's now being groomed to occupy a space on the depth chart at tight end, as well. And while his progress from undrafted free agent D-lineman from the Ivy League to starting fullback for a Super Bowl contender in the NFL is in itself quite compelling, what really stands out about Develin is what a tough guy he is.
"I enjoy being a physical player," said Develin after practice on Wednesday. "It's a part of the game I've always loved. Coming from the defensive side of the ball, I've always enjoyed the contact aspect of the game."
Develin, a tank at six-foot-three, 251 pounds, provided one of the most exciting highlights of the 2013 season simply by running it into the end zone from a yard out, his first career touchdown. Now that he's getting some run at the tight end spot, a position at which the Pats need more depth, it's safe to assume that opposing defensive backs may be a little bit more on edge with Develin catching passes in the flat, turning up field, and developing a head of steam. In last Friday night's preseason win over the Eagles, he hauled in two passes for 27 yards, one of them a nifty, 15-yard grab on an option route out of the backfield for a TD. Clearly, he's learning fast.
"It's a growing process," said Develin of his work at a new position. "It's definitely different than anything I've done in the past. It's a little different when you line up right on the line of scrimmage and the guy you're blocking is right in front of you as opposed to getting a running start. And there's a lot to learn in terms of route running, But there are also a lot of things I can bring to playing tight end from playing fullback in terms of technique. I just have to keep working every day and try to catch everything that comes to me."
Develin has himself a pretty big fan club among his teammates regardless of what position he's playing. Both Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski offered up plenty of high praise.
"He's doing a great job," said Gronk in regard to Develin's development at tight end, a spot he knows a little bit about. "He comes out every day and plays with an attitude and really sets a tone. You love having a guy like James out there setting that physical tone. Football is a physical game and James really brings it. Watching him really fires everyone up."
Brady spoke effusively about Develin too and was quick to nominate Develin for the award for best fullback in the NFL.
"He just brings so much to our team in terms of toughness and attitude," said the QB at his press conference following practice. "He's been so dependable for us since he got here. I think so highly of him. He's just such a selfless player and great teammate. I want to get it to him to see him make the defense pay. You give him the ball for a four-yard gain and then bam, he runs over a safety or a corner and that's a huge spark for our team."
Notice how both Brady and Gronk brought up Develin's toughness and attitude? Both of those qualities are paramount to his game. As the league careens further and further and faster and faster toward more arena-esque conditions, players like Develin become even more important, especially if they possess the kind of versatility to play in multiple spots.
The powers that be at NFL headquarters may be trying to legislate toughness and physicality out of the game. But they can't do that to tough, physical players like James Develin.
"When I have the ball, I'm trying to gain as many yards as I can, I'm not exactly looking for contact," said Develin. "But I'm not going to shy away from it."
And somewhere, a handful of those DBs pause briefly and take a deep, deep breath.
Jeremy Gottlieb can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jmg2776.