The New England Patriots have built an impressive running game, especially in the past two seasons, as Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen replaced the plodding BenJarvis Green-Ellis and the diminutive Danny Woodhead.
The Patriots had already lost running back Green-Ellis to Cincinnati after the 2011 season without extending themselves to make much of an offer. Last year, they allowed Woodhead to leave for San Diego, also without much of an attempt to keep him. While it can be argued that Cincinnati overpaid for Green-Ellis at three-years for $9 million, Woodhead hardly broke the bank as he signed for only two-years for $3.5 million.
However, the Patriots had excellent production running the football in 2012 and 2013, as current offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels replaced current Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien calling plays in New England, and made the running game a more regular part of the offense. Last season saw the team finish in the top-10 in the NFL in rushing yards during the regular season again. The Patriots in ’12 rushed for an average of 136.5 yards-per-game and in ’13 they almost matched that total as they rushed for 129.1 yards-per-game – all statistics from NFL.com.
Last year, the Patriots almost had a perfect split of duties from their running backs.
LeGarrette Blount gained 772 yards rushing and added seven touchdowns; Ridley pounded 773 yards rushing and also added seven touchdowns in the regular-season; Vereen had 47 receptions and 208 yards rushing in eight games; and Brandon Bolden added another 21 receptions and 271 yards rushing.
Bolden looked like the solution at backup running back in ’12 – particularly after a 137-yard rushing performance, but a four-game suspension for PEDs put him in the doghouse and he only gained 40 yards rushing in total after week six. Last season, Bolden was primarily in the role of third-down/receiving running back in place of Vereen, when he missed half the season with injury.
Veteran Leon Washington was a washout, and the offense sputtered with Bolden miscast as a blocking/receiving back in the passing game. Washington and blocking back James Develin combined for only 11 yards rushing and four receptions. Bolden was a liability in the passing game with four dropped passes on only 27 targets and his pass blocking was suspect.
With the speedy, shifty, and dynamic pass-receiving third-down running back Vereen, the Patriots had a trio of backs capable of big plays and consistent play – when they were able to stay on the field and didn’t cough the ball up.
Blount was allowed to sign with Pittsburgh as an unrestricted free agent this offseason. While the loss of Blount may not seem like a big loss, the running back was one of the best role players in the NFL late last season, as he put up 193 yards rushing with two touchdowns in week 17 versus Buffalo, and then 166 yards and four touchdowns on the ground in the divisional playoff game against Indianapolis.
The Patriots not only have to identify a replacement for Blount, but Ridley, Vereen and Bolden all are entering the final year of their contracts in 2014. However, the Patriots no doubt have hard decisions as to what direction to go with their group of young running backs.
At this point, if the Patriots believe Ridley is the running back of the future in New England. now is the time to re-sign him on the heels of a down season. That goes for Vereen, following his injury-filled ’13 campaign. The Patriots’ front office needs to decide over the course of training camp and the 2014 season whether or not they should strike early to extend the contracts of Vereen and Ridley.
In the final year of their rookie deals, running backs Ridley and Vereen only count for $2 million combined against the 2014 salary cap. Bolden and fullback James Develin barely crack $1 million combined against the cap, and last year, the salary numbers were not much different, as Blount had only a $680,000 cap charge – per Spotrac. The New England Patriots’ front office has made it very clear they will not break the bank at the running back position.
So, to add depth, the Patriots drafted Wisconsin running back James White in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. The 5-foot-9 and 204-pound running back may be smaller than ideal, but he has experience in pass protection, can catch the ball out of the backfield, and gets his pads low between the tackles to churn out yardage. White has an intriguing skill-set, as he is not a bruising back like Blount was last year, he should get time in the offense sharing carries with Ridley, while also being able to provide depth on third-down in case of another injury to Vereen.
The Patriots have also brought in some low-profile free agents at running back to compete with incumbent Bolden. The Patriots signed undrafted free agent running backs Stephen Houston and Roy Finch after the NFL Draft and had previously signed Jonas Gray to a futures contract last January. Expect for the trio to battle with Develin and Bolden for a final roster spot.
Houston has lead back size and also has experience as a receiver out of the backfield and on special teams as a returner. Gray was with the Dolphins last year and was impressive in the preseason before being derailed. He had signed with Miami after going undrafted out of Notre Dame, but showed some power and speed in his time at camp with Miami. Finch is intriguing as he was a dynamic, explosive change of pace back at Oklahoma, but will have to earn a spot on the team through special teams. He could contribute this season in the return game and potentially be a third-down option with White and Vereen.
Ridley, Vereen, and White are locks to make the roster in ’14, but the final spot (possibly two spots) is up in the air and will be a position to watch in training camp and the preseason.
With Ridley, Vereen, and Bolden all in the final year of their rookie contracts, expect White to be given every opportunity to take snaps from all three in training camp, and see where he fits in the offense. With fumbling issues for Ridley, injury issues for Vereen, and Bolden limited as a blocker/receiver, White is a player to focus on in identifying the future of the running back position while at training camp.
If the Patriots can continue to run the ball effectively, while they sort out the running back position for the third-straight campaign, they should be in position to compete for the Super Bowl yet again in this season.
But they need a formidable running game if they want to go anywhere.