Dan Vitale was labeled a “superback” during his college career at Northwestern.
Now, the Patriots free agent addition will have to prove his super strengths and versatility to not only win a roster spot and job in Foxborough, but do his best to try to fill the void left by this year’s retirement of Pro Bowl fullback James Develin.
“There are only a handful of teams in the league that use fullbacks nowadays. Obviously there has been a little bit of a resurgence around the league now with the success that a lot of teams have had. That definitely plays into it. Obviously you only have a couple options when it comes to that. Seeing all the amazing things that James Develin did over the last couple years, obviously that’s enticing for a fullback,” Vitale said, discussing Develin and the way the Patriots used their star fullback being a draw to signing with New England.
“It’s definitely some pretty dang big shoes to fill. James was a hell of a player. I’ve enjoyed watching him really since I got into the league now. He was really a role model at the position. As a fullback a lot of people don’t typically notice how important that role can be and I think it was pretty clear how important James really was to this Patriots team over the last however many years. Definitely have some really big shoes to fill but I’m really looking forward to that opportunity as well.”
The 6-0, 239-pound Vitale entered the NFL as a sixth-round pick with the Buccaneers in 2016. He’s spent time on the practice squad or active roster in Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Green Bay, where he started four of the 15 games he played while catching a career-best 7 passes a year ago.
And while Vitale once was annoyed by questions about his “superback” position back in the day at Northwestern, he now rides the versatility of that job to his role trying to establish himself in New England. Though he hasn’t put up much for stats in the NFL – totaling 15 catches and one rush in 44 career games – Vitale actually caught 135 passes with 11 touchdowns in his four college seasons.
“I think the biggest thing that I learned about my style over the last couple years is being able to be versatile,” Vitale said. “I think my abilities with the ball in my hands as well. That’s a huge advantage I think in my style of play is being able to be a playmaker when you need it. I think it showed a little bit last year as well in Green Bay. Looking forward to getting more opportunities to do that here in the near future. I will say at the end of the day too, it kind of comes with the territory at fullback, but kind of being the tough guy and having that mentality is important. That’s something I feel like I can bring as well. I’ll do any job that they ask me to do. I’ll play hard every single play and I’ll do it to the best of my ability.”
As the 26-year-old Vitale looks fill the Develin role in Foxborough he also admits he models his game after another Pro Bowl talent at the position in San Francisco’s Kyle Juszczyk. For now, though, Vitale is simply getting up to speed with the Patriots offense and his teammates via virtual meetings, although he seems to be comfortable with how the acclimation process is going despite the unique challenges.
In fact, Vitale was able to benefit from NFL facilities being closed this spring due to the coronavirus, as he was home with his family for the birth of his daughter, Bella, last month.
“I’ve jumped around the league a little bit and been in a lot of different rooms,” Vitale said. “I prepare the same way no matter what room I’m in. I try to learn every single role, every single job so whenever my number is called I’m able to do everything that’s asked of me and more. Just excited to eventually get back here with all the guys and seeing where I fit in, for sure.”