FOXBOROUGH — If it takes a little time for the Patriots’ passing game to start clicking — understandable given the complexity of New England’s offense and the cadre of new receivers — Ivan Fears’s running backs group will be ready to carry an increased load.
Now in his 17th season with the Patriots, including 14 in his current tenure, Fears has a competitive, largely young group of backs in his charge this season: third-year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, second-year man Brandon Bolden, eighth-year return specialist Leon Washington, and newcomer LeGarrette Blount. Undrafted rookie George Winn is also in the mix.
So far, Fears is liking what he’s seeing.
The competition has been “fantastic. Fantastic. It really has,” he said. “The guys are all looking good, they’re all healthy, they’re in good shape, and they know it and they’re going after each other, in a good way.”
Ridley is coming off one of the best statistical seasons in team history; he rushed for 1,263 yards on 290 carries (4.4 yards per attempt) and added a dozen touchdowns.
But what happened last year doesn’t matter now. All the other backs can push Ridley for carries, Fears said.
“Nothing’s given,” the coach said. “You know this game — it’s a performance game. Not last year, but what you do this year. So whoever gets out there and gets it done, that’s the guy who’s going to play. Nobody’s got anything, they have to earn it out there, and that’s the fun part about it. They know that.”
Ridley had two fumbles Sunday during the Patriots’ first full-pads practice, including during 11-on-11 goal line work, when he was stripped by Vince Wilfork.
He officially had four fumbles last season, two of them lost, plus the fumble he lost in the AFC Championship game, when he was knocked cold on a helmet-to-helmet hit from the Ravens’ Bernard Pollard.
No matter when they happen, though, Fears does not want to see fumbles from Ridley, or anyone.
“I don’t care who it is — when you put the ball down . . . that’s a tough situation [against Wilfork Sunday], but hold on to the ball. You gotta do that. He’s gotta do that,” Fears said. “He’s going to get hit in the backfield, that’s going to happen in the course of the year. You can’t make any excuses for anybody on that, they all know that, he knows it, and he’s trying. He’s trying hard, and we’ve just got to protect the ball.”
When the Patriots allowed Danny Woodhead to leave for San Diego in free agency, it was easy to assume they were confident that Vereen was ready to step into Woodhead’s third-down role. Again, though, Fears isn’t handing anything to anyone.
“Whoever is going to play third down for us is going to earn it. They’re going to earn it in practice and these preseason games,” he said. “There’s no set that, ‘This guy’s going to be it’. We will do what we have to to win with whoever is performing. That’s what it’s going to be. Somebody’s going to perform to earn the job.”
The 58-year-old proud grandfather of two little girls saw a change in Vereen last year.
After struggling with injuries as a rookie and early last season, the 2011 second-round pick played in the final 13 games of the regular season last year, as well as both postseason games.
“Last year he actually turned a corner, was out there, stayed out there, and then the spring and offseason, he was out there every practice,” Fears said. “We never had an issue. I believe he’s turned the corner; only time will tell though. But he’s been practicing, he hasn’t missed a day, he hasn’t complained about a thing, so let’s keep our fingers crossed.”
Vereen ended the regular season with eight receptions for 149 yards, but he had seven in the playoffs, including five against the Texans. Two of those catches went for touchdowns, and the night served as his coming-out party.
Of the three players projected to be the top contributors at the position, Bolden is the biggest unknown. As an undrafted rookie, Bolden had a 137-yard game against Buffalo early in the season, but then a knee injury followed immediately by his four-game suspension for performance-enhancing substances caused him to miss six weeks.
By the time he was ready to return, Fears said, he liked what he was getting from Ridley and Vereen and didn’t want to shake things up.
It’s easy to tell, however, that Fears likes what he’s seen from the 23-year-old Bolden.
“Right now he’s doing well. He had a great day [Sunday], running the ball and doing some things, catching the ball and doing everything, so yeah, we’re hoping he’s going to get back into that picture,” Fears said.
“I’m expecting him to get back into that picture. He looks like he’s a very, very talented player.”
His talented young charges have Fears excited for what could be — provided they put everything together.
“But we have to get open, we have to pass protect, we have to put it all together, and we have to do it as a total package consistently and on a dependable basis,” he said.
“That’s the guys we want to have out there. That’s what we’re going to find out — who can do it in the next couple of weeks.”Shalise Manza Young can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.