What remains of the Patriots’ depth at running back following the departure of BenJarvus Green-Ellis (181 carries, 667 yards, 11 touchdowns in 2011-12) is question marks. Also gone, yet lurking for a potential comeback, is Kevin Faulk. Who is left? Who will be the team’s lead running back? Youngsters Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen and scat back Danny Woodhead, are all looking to prove their mettle with more snaps and more exposure. Add into the equation veteran running back Joseph Addai and rookie free agent Brandon Bolden, and the Patriots have a mix of young, new, and unproven. As Patriots offseason workouts continue, here’s a look at this key group:
Ridley rushed for 441 yards on 87 attempts last season, posting an impressive 5.1 yards per carry. He was the team’s second-leading rusher behind Green-Ellis. But he suffered from a bit of fumble-itis in the playoffs and was subsequently banished to the bench. He lost a fumble against the Denver Broncos and then didn’t record a carry in the AFC Championship game or Super Bowl. Offseason workouts give him an opportunity to regain the trust he lost from coach Bill Belichick and take over as the lead back. In two open practice sessions, he has worked as either the first or second-string running back.
Now a second-year pro, Vereen appeared in five games last season and recorded carries in two of them. He had trouble staying healthy in the beginning of the year because of a nagging hamstring injury. In one of the two open practice sessions the Patriots have held so far, Vereen was spotted working as the team’s lead running back. He has exceptional speed (4.49 40-yard dash, although he plays faster) and was seen in last week’s workout showing solid bursts on cuts coming out of the backfield. A healthy Vereen pushes Ridley for the lead back role, and the two of them make the Patriots a much faster team.
The veteran of six NFL seasons came to the Patriots on a 1-year deal, bringing his 4,453 career rushing yards and 191 receptions to the running back committee. He’s versatile and experienced, making him a positive addition considering Green-Ellis departure and Faulk’s uncertain status. At 29, with multiple injuries in his career, it’s uncertain whether he can compete for a leading role. In open practice sessions, he’s been seen working out separate from the team, rehabbing and conditioning. His role will be defined over time.
Woodhead (351 yards rushing, 18 receptions, 157 receiving yards, one touchdown in 2011) is a great change-of-pace back who often throws defenses for a loop with his small frame and change-of-direction ability. What’s unfortunate is that from 2010 to 2011 his yards per carry dipped from 5.6 to 4.6. But what he lacks running between the tackles, he makes up for with his receiving skills. In special packages, Woodhead works as a slot receiver that can shift to the backfield in a pinch and catch defenses off guard. He projects as the team’s third-down back in passing situations.
A rookie free agent, Bolden is an Ole Miss product from Baton Rouge, La. He finished his college career as the No. 2 scoring running back in his college’s history (27 rushing touchdowns) with the third most rushing yards (3,681). At 5-11 and 215 pounds, he’s competing for a job on the roster with Vereen and Ridley ahead of him on the depth chart. He also is eligible for the practice squad.
Don’t expect to be bowled over by Belichick with an announcement of who his starting running back will be this fall. Not now. Not after training camp. Not ever. This will be a running back by committee situation and Ridley and Vereen will lead the way, which is why the health of each player will be more important than ever in determining touches. The talented Addai will certainly push for his share of the pie, but with his history of health issues, one has to wonder how vigorously he can compete. Similarly, Vereen is presumably healthy to split time with Ridley. Unsaid in this whole situation is how the number of wide receivers on the roster this offseason (11) will eventually affect the number of running backs that remain with the team.
Projected depth chart:
1. Stevan Ridley
2. Shane Vereen
3. Danny Woodhead
4. Joseph Addai
5. Brandon Bolden (practice squad eligible)