After the New England Patriots allowed BenJarvus Green-Ellis to walk in free agency, is their resurgent running game missing the services of "The Law Firm" at the season's halfway point?
When BenJarvus Green-Ellis signed a three-year, $9 million deal with the Cincinnati Bengals that the New England Patriots were unwilling to match, his departure was met with mixed emotions from the team and from the fanbase. Green-Ellis, an undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss that joined the club in 2008, was a consummate professional and a quick adherent to "The Patriot Way" that came as advertised with one statistical anomaly; he never fumbled the ball. While his lack of upper-tier speed and explosion were certainly brought into question during the very few instances the Patriots' aerial attack managed to stall, his consistency and bruising style were figured to be more than enough to serve as a complementary role in a pass-first offense.
It seemed the coaching staff lacked the confidence in making Green-Ellis a permanent feature back as the Patriots surprisingly invested two high draft picks in the backfield during 2011. Both Shane Vereen (second-round) and Stevan Ridley (third-round) were figured to add more "teeth" to a running game that had been missing its fair share of incisors since the days of Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith. Joining them were small and shifty stalwart Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis clone Brandon Bolden (another undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss with seemingly identical measurables), making it clear the coaching staff were willing to throw a stocked stable of backs at the wall to see what stuck. Just before the new season began, it was an exciting time to turn over a new leaf and salivate at the prospect of a varied-approach, downhill running game featuring the dynamic young backs, but it was not without some emotion and a little uncertainty. After all, Green-Ellis was that rare type of player that transcended football, impossible not to root for in spite of where your allegiances may lie.
Now that the season has passed its halfway mark, we're left with a large enough sample size to determine which backfield got the better bang for their buck:
Offensive Lines: The disparity is important to note here, as plenty of excellent running backs have struggled behind a subpar o-line, and some serviceable backs have looked stellar behind great ones. There is plenty of subjection to be had as far as judging the performance of each team's offensive line, so I've listed three sources with three very different statistic-crunching systems when it comes to measuring an o-line's effectiveness.
-Pro Football Focus has the Patriots 7th, the Bengals 8th.
-Cold Hard Football Facts (according to their Offensive Hog Index, or OHI) has the Patriots 1st, the Bengals 31st.
-Football Outsiders (in run blocking) has the Patriots 7th, the Bengals 12th.
Yards Per Carry (YPC): Across eight games, Green-Ellis is averaging just 3.4 yards a carry (487 yds/142 att)
Brandon Bolden: 5.4 ypc (234 yds/43 att)
Stevan Ridley: 4.8 ypc (716 yds/150 att)
Shane Vereen: 4.2 ypc (72 yds/17 att)
Danny Woodhead: 3.4 ypc (164 yds/48 att)
Against common opponents the two teams have faced this year (the Denver Broncos
and Baltimore Ravens
), Green-Ellis fared much better against Baltimore with a 4.0 ypc (91 yds/18 att) that bested both Ridley's 2.8 ypc and Woodhead's 2.3 ypc. Against Denver, Green-Ellis struggled with a 3.3 ypc (56 yds/17 att) which was easily bested by both Ridley's 5.4 ypc and Bolden's 3.9 ypc.
Ball Security: The biggest fear in handing the keys over to the new and unproven backs was that there'd be a significant and inevitable dropoff in ball security. After all, Green-Ellis' most notable attribute was his unwillingness to put the ball on the turf—a veritable coach's dream. When Stevan Ridley was eased into the backfield at the tail end of his 2011 rookie season, his propensity to cough the ball up provided a stark contrast to the consistently reliable Green-Ellis.
Midway through the season, the opposite has been true. In having just 8 less carries than Stevan Ridley as the team's featured back, Green-Ellis has fumbled the ball 3 times (losing 2). Ridley has fumbled the ball just twice, losing it only once. Brandon Bolden, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead have yet to surrender the football running out of the backfield this season, showing that ball security is always a top point of emphasis for the Patriot coaching staff—no matter who is called upon to be the ball carrier.
Value: The Patriots were seeing the results they desperately needed from their backfield, but how much better of a value were they getting by penny-pinching in the backfield and refusing to match the Bengals' contract?
Stevan Ridley: $509,250 ($671,250 against cap)
Shane Vereen: $465,000 ($719,300 against cap)
Danny Woodhead: $700,000 ($849,786 against cap)
Brandon Bolden: $390,000 ($395,000 against cap)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis $3,000,000 ($4,000,000 against cap)
While the lack of retainment of BenJarvus Green-Ellis wasn't a popular move initially, it was a shrewd one. While a three-year, $9 million deal isn't completely unreasonable for a reliable featured back in today's lacking market, the Patriots were able to not only meet but outperform the production vacated by Green-Ellis in the form of four cap-friendly backs, three that continue to play out their rookie contracts. Freeing the would-be cap hit helped immediately in moving along the contract extensions of both Rob Gronkowski
and Aaron Hernandez
, and could assist in a potential deal down the road for Wes Welker