Patriots Camp Chronicles: Running Backs

Sometimes it takes a village to bring down a back.... - J. Meric

With the resurgence of the Patriots running game last year and the emergence of thousand yard back, Stevan Ridley, the Patriots' backfield seems to have more answers than questions. With the exodus of utility back Danny Woodhead though, a few questions still remain.

Editor's Foreword: We're doing our training camp positional group analysis differently this year. Several of the writers are going to be taking on positional groups as the "positional coach" of that group. In a few weeks, we'll get together and pare down the 90 man roster to the final 53 man roster plus the 8 man practice squad. We'll be looking at roster balance, the ever important special teams, practice squad eligibility, as well as keeping our respective groups viable and deep. When we're done we'll present our final positional rosters detailing where we made our cuts and why.

Status of the position:

For the first time in a long time, the 2012 Patriots running game featured a thousand yard back. With utility man, Danny Woodhead, in the no-huddle and third downs, and solid backup play from hard hitter Brandon Bolden and dynamic Shane Vereen, the Patriots running game was as dominant as it has been in years. While the Patriots run game was often opportunistic, rushing against nickel and dime defenses, they were also able to impose their will against some teams that were planning for the run. Not as consistently as they'd like, but good enough tor the 7th rated rushing attack in the NFL and the number 1 in points.

That was then, this is now. After watching Woody scramble repeatedly for 10+ yards on a third down - and make it, it should come as no surprise that his rush to leave Foxboro would be equally as successful. With Woody gone as third down and no-huddle back, a huge opening emerged in the Patriots backfield. Enter Shane Vereen. In limited snaps last year, Vereen showed the skills to suggest he might even be an upgrade over UDFA Danny Woodhead in the passing game. The Patriots also picked up return specialist Leon Washington who averages 4.7 YPC in the run game and 9.0 YPC in the passing game, and could serve as a backup at the position.

The Patriots also traded for LeGarrette Blount, a 6' 250lb back formerly with Tampa Bay. Blount averages 4.6 YPC, often getting the hard yards in short yardage situations. He also averages 7.8 yards catching out of the backfield. Blount is a challenger for the role of hard running back that Brandon Bolden filled last year before being suspended for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances. Rookies Quentin Hines and George Winn are also vying for a shot at the already crowded backfield.

Veteran James Develin and rookie UDFA Ben Bartholomew are likewise trying to see just how much OC Josh McDaniels likes fullbacks. With suitable back-ups RB LeGarrette Blount, TE Mike Hoomanawanui, OL Dan Connolly, and even QB Tim Tebow in camp, it's unlikely there will be enough of a role for just a blocking back on the roster. New England has shown in the past they are just fine with filling that role from other positions.

The Stable:

No Player Pos Ht Wt 40 time Vertical 3 cone Age Exp College
39 Bartholomew, Ben FB 6-2 252 4.75 34.5 7.31 23 R Tennessee
29 Blount, LeGarrette RB 6-0 247 4.59 35 6.85 26 4 Oregon
38 Bolden, Brandon RB 5-11 220 4.50 38 6.96 23 2 Mississippi
46 Develin, James FB 6-3 251 5.03 28.5 7.25 24 2 Brown
Hines, Quentin RB 5-11 190 4.40 42.5 7.2 22 R Akron
22 Ridley, Stevan RB 5-11 220 4.66 36 6.78 24 3 LSU
34 Vereen, Shane RB 5-9 205 4.49 34 6.95 24 3 California
33 Washington, Leon PR/RB 5-8 203 4.42 32.5 6.96 30 8 Florida State
35 Winn, George RB 5-11 210 4.53 34.5 7.13 22 R Cincinnati

Projections:

The Patriots are going to be looking for certain roles, and I'll group these here:

1st and 2nd down back (the bell-cow) - dynamic enough to get yards, sturdy enough to hold up:

Ridley, Bolden, Blount, Winn

3rd down or no-huddle back - blocker, runner, catcher, and can line-up wide:

Vereen, Washington, Hines

Short Yardage Back - powerful runner that falls forward:

Blount, Bolden, Ridley, Bartholomew, Develin, (Hooman, Tebow)

Lead Blocking Back - enough size to move people out of lanes:

Blount, Bartholomew, Develin, (Hooman, Connolly or another lineman, Tebow)

Being on more than one list obviously, is a plus, and some guys project to multiple roles as subs if needed should we test our depth as we do every season.

We're looking for somewhere around 4 to 6 running backs. That includes any full back additions. Brandon Bolden was on four special teams last year, and Shane Vereen was on one.

The only concern with Stevan Ridley is ball security. He's had a few fumbles in camp and a previous history of losing the ball. That will always be a point of emphasis with Belichick and could eat into his playing time or even his roster spot if he doesn't show improvement. In addition, Vereen showed last year that he could be dynamic with the ball in his hands. Washington has tremendous upside as a returner for both kicks and punts (the next time Edelman is injured), and is one of the few backups for Vereen on third downs.

That slides us down to the 4th spot where a battle looms between Bolden, Blount and the two full-backs. Bolden is the incumbent, and while the suspension for PED's may have been for something innocuous, like an Adderall prescription, the suspension happened and he lost four games and rarely saw the field again. If he was actually using some sort of PED, will he actually show enough without it to be able to make the team? Blount has more size than Bolden and a violent running style. His ability as a lead blocker may also put him ahead in the race. In addition, the Patriots HAVE used as many as 6 backs in years past, but that is usually with fewer guys on the TE roster. The addition of a special teamer here may change that , though.

Roster Locks (barring fumbles injuries):

Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Leon Washington

His job to lose:

Brandon Bolden, LeGarrette Blount

Strong showing coming into camp:

/ crickets

Too talented to lose:

Quentin Sims speed may be enough to land him on the practice squad.

Outside looking in:

Ben Bartholomew (more likely than Develin to land on PS), James Develin, George Winn

In the end, I think Blount will edge ahead of Bolden on the depth chart, the question is whether we'll have more than 4 backs. Who do you think will be on the final roster?

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