New England Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, left, grapples with tight end Justin Jones, right, during a field exercise in an NFL football training camp practice at Gillette Stadium, Sunday, July 27, 2014, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, center, warms up on the field with teammates during an NFL football training camp practice at Gillette Stadium, Sunday, July 27, 2014, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts — Rob Gronkowski isn't ready for full-time activity. Michael Hoomanawanui has been sidelined the past two practices.
The New England Patriots are short-handed at tight end so James Develin is getting another chance to show the versatility that has earned praise from coach Bill Belichick.
"He gets better all the time," Belichick said Wednesday. "It's a little bit like a relief pitcher. He has a role, but sometimes you don't know when that role is going to occur."
Develin played defensive line at Brown but, at 255 pounds, realized any shot at making the NFL depended on his ability to contribute in other ways. With the Patriots, he's a fullback and a solid special teams contributor.
And once his NFL career is over, he can always use his Ivy League mechanical engineering degree.
"That's on hold," he said.
Now he's seeing more time at tight end while Gronkowski continues his comeback from knee surgery and Hoomanawanui nurses an undisclosed injury.
"The unique thing about James is he's a very versatile player," Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said. "We saw that going back to last season. He was able to line up in the backfield, at tight end, detach from the formation."
Develin participated in 27.6 percent of the team's offensive snaps last season, mostly as a blocker. He caught four passes for 62 yards and ran four times for 10 yards and a touchdown.
"He's not a game-breaking type of (player). That's not really his role," Belichick said. "But the plays, like the play he had in Houston last year, breaking four tackles to get into the end zone from the 1-yard line, those kind of plays sometimes say as much as an 80-yard touchdown."
On his second rush of the season, Develin was stopped as he hit the middle of the line. He kept his legs churning and was stopped again and again and again as he kept moving to the left. Finally, he fell into the end zone. The Patriots ended up winning the game 34-31.
"The past is in the past and I'll leave it there," Develin said. "At this point, there's no use in looking back on it, just trying to do it again this year."
After leaving Brown, he played the 2010 season with the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League.
"I was just trying to stay in the game and get some film" of himself for scouts to study, Develin said. "That's the whole reason I went down there. I wasn't really getting any looks from NFL teams so I figured why not go down there and play the game I love and just keep trying and keep trying. And, luckily, everything worked out for me."
His coach with the Tuskers was Jay Gruden, now the coach of the Washington Redskins. The Patriots will hold joint practices at Washington's training facility next week before they meet in a preseason opener next Thursday night.
"I'm excited to see him," Develin said. "I'm glad that he's doing so well and that he's been given the opportunity to move up."
Playing for the Tuskers was a critical steppingstone.
"It was very valuable for me," he said. "I was a rookie. I didn't have really any experience playing professional football and that kind of got my feet wet in it and I was able to learn from a lot of ex-NFL guys."
After his stint with the Tuskers, he joined the Cincinnati Bengals practice squad for the last five games of the 2010 season. He stayed on it throughout the following season but was waived late in the 2012 training camp and was signed to New England's practice squad one day later. The Patriots waived him twice after that before signing him last Sept. 6.
He played all 18 games, including the playoffs, last season.
"James is very smart, works very, very hard. He had a great offseason ... very strong in the weight room," Belichick said. "From day one that he entered the program to where he is now, he's really improved."
Now he has a chance to improve at tight end.
"Wherever the coaches put me, whenever they give me an opportunity, I'm just trying to go out there and do it to the best of my ability," Develin said.