FOXBOROUGH — What makes a player a veteran?
In the eyes of many, any player who isn’t a rookie is a veteran. But even a rookie who started all 16 games in his first season has a limited amount of NFL experience.
So how many years does it take to be considered a true veteran? To have played enough snaps, to have faced enough opponents, to have been in enough situations to know just what to do in almost any instance?
If the answer is around three years and/or 40 games — the amount of experience Danny Woodhead has in the league — then the Patriots have a veteran running back on their roster.
If not, well, then consider the backs a pretty green group.
That doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t be effective, it just means they are young and inexperienced.
New England has just four running backs on the roster – Woodhead, second-year players Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, and undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden. Combined, they have 191 NFL carries, which is a light season for a No. 1 back on some other teams. There are lessons to be learned, but they’ll have to learn them on their own.
“I think last year was crucial having Kev [Kevin Faulk] and Benny [BenJarvus Green-Ellis] with us,” Vereen said. “This year we’re kind of on our own with no real big vet. But at the same time, we’ve just got to learn and become vets ourselves.”
Last season, Ridley was second on the Patriots in carries to Green-Ellis, getting 87 in the regular season — 39 of those in the last three games. He showed explosion and an ability to pick up yards: He was responsible for all five of the Patriots’ 20-plus-yard runs, and averaged 5.1 yards per carry.
The third-rounder from Louisiana State, entering his second season, has gotten the majority of the first-team carries thus far in training camp, and is the odds-on favorite to be the primary ballcarrier for New England. He wouldn’t be the only one, however, as the Patriots have gone with a committee and situational approach with their running backs for several years.
But both Ridley and Vereen have known for some time that they would be competing for the lion’s share of carries, especially after Green-Ellis signed with Cincinnati as a free agent. And Faulk, who would play more of a supporting role at this point in his career on the field but would be a valued mentor off it, has not been re-signed.
“It’s competition, and I don’t think anybody in our room is scared of competition,” Ridley said. “We’re all competing but we’re all trying to help each other, trying to better each other, and if we can get better as a group, I think we’ll be a solid unit out there.”
Green-Ellis was as steady as they come and never fumbled but wasn’t flashy. Ridley and Vereen, a second-round pick last year, each can eke out yards that Green-Ellis often didn’t.
Vereen is still an unknown quantity after missing much of last season to injury. His 15 carries came over the Kansas City and Philadelphia games; he fared better against the Chiefs, and scored his first touchdown that night.
At Cal, Vereen also proved adept at catching out of the backfield, with 74 receptions in three seasons. With offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’s fondness for screen passes, that could help him get touches.
Ridley hasn’t had as many chances in that aspect of the game, with three catches last year and 19 at LSU.
Both are eager to do whatever is asked of them, however.
“I enjoy any time the coaches put the ball in my hands and anything I can do for the team,” Vereen said.
With short passes likely making a comeback under McDaniels, they have been practiced quite a bit since the spring camps. Vereen knows what kind of weapon they can be.
“We’ve got to be able to do multiple things as an offense. We’ve got to be able to do them well,” he said. “And in order to do them well, you’ve got to practice them.
“It’s effective because it puts the defense on their heels, but it also just opens another chapter for our offense.”
Ridley finds a bit of humor in them as well.
“It’s fun to see three big linemen out in front of you, trying to get downfield on some [defensive backs],” he said. “It’s a chance to make a big play. For me, it’s a present when you have lead blockers going downfield like that. I look forward to it when it does open up. If we can get it down like the coaches want us to run it, I think that we’ll get to call that play a pretty good bit.”
They may be a little green, but they certainly talk like veterans.