FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 24: Stevan Ridley #22 of the New England Patriots stiff arms Cameron Wake #91 of the Miami Dolphins during the fourth quarter of New England's 27-24 win at Gillette Stadium on December 24, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
Happy Training Camp week, everyone! Over the next few days leading into and throughout training camp, I'll be highlighting and previewing a particular position each day. We'll take a look at projected starter(s), the player(s) with most to prove and the player(s) with most to learn. We'll also see who has the inside track to making the 53-man roster.
For the past decade, the New England Patriots have established themselves as one of the best, if not the best, offense in the NFL. Combined with the elite play of quarterback Tom Brady and the pass catchers like Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, this offense can look nearly unstoppable at times.
However, one thing that the Patriots really haven't had since they had Corey Dillon back in 2004-2006, the team really hasn't featured a true number one running back. Instead, Bill Belichick and company have embraced the approach of "running back by committee"--in which they implore several backs to form a potent running game.
Coming into the 2012 season, the Patriots will be bringing back veteran running backs Danny Woodhead and Joseph Addai, two second-year backs in Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, and an undrafted rookie in Brandon Bolden. Not exactly the most exciting list of players, but when you use a community effort from some of these guys, things don't seem so bad. Let's take a look at how things stand with the backs, heading into camp:
Projected Starters: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen
While BenJarvus Green-Ellis received the majority of the reps in 2011, Bill Belichick and running backs coach Ivan Fears made the decision to put young Stevan Ridley into the rotation early in the season. Ridley appeared in 15 games (started two games), where he ran for 441 yards and a touchdown on 87 carries. His numbers weren't spectacular, but he showed Patriot nation the player he could potentially become.
Meanwhile, Shane Vereen wasn't as fortunate as Ridley, as he wasn't worked in nearly as much. Vereen only appeared in five games this past season (usually when the Patriots had a huge lead), where he rushed 15 times for 57 yards and scored a touchdown. Even on a limited sample, not exactly numbers you call "eye-popping"
But with Green-Ellis gone to the Bengals, the reigns are likely in these two young backs' hands. Both have commanded first team reps through the majority of offseason workouts, and both seem to have the trust of Fears and Belichick going forward. These guys are two different players with different styles, which could make up for a beautiful 1-2 running back duo in the near future. They'll be put to the test in 2012.
Most To Prove: Danny Woodhead, Joseph Addai
It seems a bit odd that second year players would be getting more reps than the "grizzled vets" are, but that's what both players might need to really regain their form in 2012.
For Woodhead, this will be his third go-around with the Patriots. After putting up startling numbers when he was claimed off waivers from the Jets, Woodhead declined this past season--totaling only 508 yards for scrimmage and a single touchdown. While he saw fewer touches this past season, Woodhead was and still is the team's best pass catching back. I'm putting him here because of a guy the team brought in, former Colt Joseph Addai.
While it's easy to argue that Addai's best years are behind him, he could very well resurrect his career with the Patriots in 2012. Early in his career in Indianapolis, Addai was used as a receiving option out of the back field quite often, and was fairly successful with it all. His six seasons in the league makes him the most experienced back on the Patriots' roster, so 2012 could be a year for Addai to showcase what he's learned.
Most To Learn: Brandon Bolden
Again, the youngest guy of the group gets this tag. And for good reason.
Bolden was an undrafted free agent the Patriots signed out of the University of Mississippi. We've heard this story before right? Yep, he's been widely compared to another undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss in BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
If Bolden wants to live up to the wide expectation that he'll be the next BenJarvus Green-Ellis, he's got to work on his ball security. Green-Ellis never once fumbled in his NFL career, so a lot has to be on this kid's shoulders. I think that if this kid can contribute to the future of the club, a year on the practice squad can really do him some good. This way, he can learn the game a little better, before becoming the back we all know he can be.
Locked In Starters:
On The Bubble:
On The Outs/Potential Practice Squad Member: