For years, running back has been a problem position for the Patriots, as ever since Corey Dillon, they lacked a dynamic threat at the position, putting too much emphasis on the arm of Tom Brady. That, however, is changing. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was a solid and dependable back, and did a job for the team, but the Patriots needed someone who could go over 1200 yards consistently and Law Firm was never going to be that man. With the 2011 draft, the Patriots signaled a change in direction with the acquisition of Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, foreshadowing that the run was going to become more important in the Patriots offense.
The number 1 back on the roster is Stevan Ridley, who rushed for 1263 yards last season, and that was with having a quiet end to the season. Ridley is powerful and dynamic, with a great ability to break the tackle and gain those crucial extra yards needed to push the team over the line. Ridley is young and will continue to improve and hopefully rid the fumbles out of his game, because if he doesn't, he won't have a long term future in a Patriots uniform. Ridley is at the advantage of having Tom Brady at quarterback, which frees more space for him as defenses are forced to put more men in cover because of Brady's skill and accuracy. Ridley is one of the best backs in the NFL and went overlooked by a wider audience last season mainly because of how dynamic the rest of the offense is.
Shane Vereen will essentially take over Danny Woodhead's role from previous seasons. Whilst Woodhead was a prolific contributor and always dependable, Vereen showed, when given the snaps, that he could be a more than adequate replacement and his ability as a dynamic receiver is far greater than Woodhead's. Vereen has excellent big play ability, as shown in the playoff game against Houston last season, where he destroyed their defense in the air and on the ground. Vereen's role in the offense should continue to evolve and develop as Brady, Belichick and McDaniels become more confident in his ability to be a reliable contributor up to the standard of Woodhead.
Stevan Ridley's de facto backup on the roster is Brandon Bolden, who was an undrafted free agent last season who went on to make some significant contributions before getting suspended for violating the NFL's substance policy. Bolden's big moment thus far in his NFL career was in week 4 of last season against the Buffalo Bills, where both he and Ridley rumbled over 100 yards each in a trouncing that had the Bills defense looking very embarrassed. Bolden will be key in making sure Ridley doesn't burn out and he has shown he has the ability to damage a defense giving the opportunity. Given the fact he is on a low salary, right now, he is the perfect back up running back for the Patriots.
With Ridley, Vereen and Bolden looking like roster locks, there will probably be a battle between Jeff Demps and Leon Washington for a single spot on the roster. Demps and Washington essentially offer the same thing: they are first and foremost, return men, who will breathe life into the Patriots' special teams unit. They can both offer something on offense also, as Demps has electrifying speed and Washington is a solid back too. Demps is significantly younger than Washington, but his heart does not appear to be in football as he remains determined to continue his track career, something Bill Belichick is unlikely to allow. That will probably tip the balance in the favour of Washington as nobody wants a raw talent who is more interested in being an Olympian than Super Bowl winner on their team.
After several years of uncertainty and the nightmare that was Laurence Maroney, the Patriots are very solid at running back, with a surefire and dynamic number 1 option, a solid backup and an incredibly talented change-of-pace back who is great with his hands. I expect the run to be further emphasised this season as Belichick and McDaniels have more confidence in the younger backs and their abilities than they did an off-season ago when they were all still untested at NFL level.