Ever since moving from Corey Dillon and into the explosive 2007 season, the Patriots have shifted their offensive identity from a complementary offense to a passing offense with a supporting running game. That's not a bad thing; it's just how the game has evolved over time. Rules have developed to prevent as much contact against receivers and rule changes has led to greater performances by passing attacks. The Patriots have adjusted accordingly and have a tremendous wealth of talent at the receiver position.
But what about the backfield? What about the running backs? Before the draft, some of the most noteworthy free agent signings were fullbacks Spencer Larsen and Tony Fiammetta. Remember that? Once the calendar flipped to April, all focus has been on the attention to defense and to the receiving corps. Just don't forget about the fullbacks- Belichick wouldn't have brought them to the team if he didn't think they could help.
Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels is back and he enjoys having a versatile fullback- just think back to 2007 with Heath Evans and Kyle Eckel. Last season, the Patriots signed Lousaka Polite for the end of the year and he played well enough as a fullback and a special teams player. Due to the free agency period, it seems as if the team is willing to look at adding a fullback full time.
When looking at the value of a fullback, you have to compare him to a 5th or 6th receiver on the roster- who is going to have more of an impact? A bottom of the roster receiver may see a couple snaps a game as a gunner or a returnman. The Patriots won't be reaching too far down their receiving depth chart- maybe to the 3rd receiver a couple times- due to the strength at tight end. Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, heck, even Daniel Fells all provide value as receivers out of the tight end spot and they're all exceptionally versatile. So how much of an impact will an end-of-roster receiver have?
Compare that with a fullback. They can be core four special teams players. They can play situational football in short yardage downs and as a bulky pass protector on obvious downs. Spencer Larsen is an able receiver and Fiammetta has ability all over the field. Fact is, fullbacks are extremely undervalued in the league as very few rosters reserve a spot for a fullback. As a result, the top fullbacks are on the market- and the Patriots are looking to cash in. If the fullback can play 5-10 snaps a game on offense and be a core four special teamer, they deserve a roster spot. Because, hey, why not?
Don't mark down a roster spot for Larsen or Fiammetta in permanent marker; the coaches still have to define a role for them on the team. Still, Bill Belichick is trying to put the best 53 players on the roster and maybe the best fullback during the off-season can hold more value than a 6th receiver. That's for the players to prove. But if they can prove it, don't be surprised if they make the roster over one of the bigger names at receiver.
As for the other positions in the backfield, the Patriots have recently added Joseph Addai to a promising trio of Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead, and Shane Vereen. The unit now features a first, second, and third round pick, as well as an UDFA, showing that talent can come from everywhere. It also shows that Belichick believes that there is a lot of talent at running back that is worth spending a draft pick on to bring to the team.
While the league have moved into a passing league, there is still value in having a great running back. Perhaps what defines a "great running back" has evolved over the past few seasons- they must now be able to catch and pass block if they wish to be elite- but teams still need great running backs. Before drafting Vereen and Ridley last season, Belichick had this to say about the value of dratfing running backs:
"Well, I think when you look at the production throughout the league; you’ll see there is a lot of production from first- and second-round running backs, currently in the league and in previous years. That position has produced a lot in the National Football League, as obviously has the quarterback position. So I wouldn’t say it’s devalued at all."
Belichick still values the running back position and realized that the elite players deserve to be drafted. While there has been success taking players like BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, and even other teams have won with Arian Foster and Fred Jackson, the elite running backs- the Matt Forte and Ray Rice calibre players- are typically taken early in the draft. While finding a Foster or Jackson, or even a Woodhead, is a shot in the dark and a wonderful story, they're far from certain in free agency.
Between 2000 and 2010, 58 running backs have been drafted in the first and second rounds. 34 of them have posted averages of 60+ total yards/game, or just under 1000 yards/season, including the Patriots Laurence Maroney with 50+ rushing yards and ~10 receiving yards a game. A thousand yard season is a reasonable production from a top player (and yes, you should expect more than reasonable production from a top pick in the first round, but more leeway for those at the end of the second). Basically, running backs in the first couple of rounds have a very high success rate and, if you believe they have the potential to be a top contributing member of the offense, they're worth a top pick.
Addai comes in with plenty of pass blocking ability after protecting Peyton Manning for his career, and he also adds value in the committee. Ridley showed promised as a cut-and-go player and will continue to develop as he cuts down on his fumbles and learns to be a receiver and a blocker. Woodhead isn't a betwee-the-tackles running back, but he's the favorite back in the no-huddle which is used two or three times a game- and he adds value as an extremely average kick returner. Vereen is unproven but could be the best of everyone on the roster as he looks to be a complete package out of the backfield with a strong, explosive, and fast running game and solid receiving and blocking skills.
All of the players in the backfield have the ability to contribute. Larsen and Fiammetta are both solid receivers and blockers. Addai, Ridley, Woodhead, and Vereen are all dangerous out of the backfield. Which ones will excel?
Historically, when the Patriots have had such depth at running back, the typical breakdown of production is the following:
#1: 900+ total yards (700+ rushing yards, 200+ receiving)
#2: 600+ total yards (450+ rushing yards, 150+ receiving)
#3: 400+ total yards (300+ rushing yards, 100+ receiving)
#4: 200+ total yards (150+ rushing yards, 50+ receiving)
The questions left are:
1. Will the Patriots keep Addai to have four running backs on the roster?
2. Will the Patriots spare room for a fullback?
3. How will the snaps be distributed?
1. Will the Patriots keep Addai? Quickest answer, I believe that they will keep Addai. While Ridley, Vereen, and Woodhead make a solid trio and the addition of Addai reduces the likelihood of keeping a fullback, the Patriots could use a veteran presence in the backfield. They could also use a better pass blocker at running back and Addai is the best on on the team. He adds value and has upside as a committee back.
2. Will the Patriots spare room for a fullback? I think the fullback will be one of the last positions decided. They'll most likely be in the 40-50 range on the "roster building" template as they compete with depth players for added value and merit. That said, I think they have enough value as definite core four special teams players and as blockers for a handful of snaps every game. To me, the question is whether they keep Larsen or Fiammetta.
Larsen has connections to Josh McDaniels from his Denver days, while Fiammetta is known as one of the better run blockers in the league. Both have a lot to prove, but I think Larsen gets the nod due to his versatility (in 2008 he started the game at both fullback and at linebacker). He adds plenty of depth and is a sure special teams player. He also has caught every pass thrown his way. He's a dangerous weapon that I think adds more potential than Fiammetta.
3. How will the snaps be split? If the Patriots keep all four running backs, it will be interesting to see how the players are affected. Does Addai's ability and size reduce the utility of Woodhead in the no huddle? How does the development of Vereen and Ridley affect the total snap count? Unfortunately, I see Woody's role being affected the most.
I think Ridley and Vereen will be competing for the starting role, with Addai and Woodhead taking on smaller jobs. While I think Ridley starts off strong, ultimately, I see Vereen winning out the competition. He's too dangerous as an all-around threat to not be given a chance. I think Ridley makes sense as a "closer" of sorts- a running back who is strong and runs hard in the fourth quarter, while Vereen makes the plays needed to win games early on.
Over the season, here are my projections:
Shane Vereen - 150 carries, 650 yards, 6 TDs; 25 receptions, 350 yards, 1 TDs
Stevan Ridley - 100 carries, 500 yards, 5 TDs; 10 receptions, 80 yards, 0 TDs
Joseph Addai - 75 carries, 300 yards, 2 TDs; 10 receptions, 75 yards, 0 TDs
Danny Woodhead - 50 carries, 250 yards, 1 TD; 15 receptions, 150 yards, 1 TD
Spencer Larsen - 25 carries, 80 yards, 2 TDs; 5 receptions, 35 yards, 0 TDs
Total: 400 carries, 1880 yards, 16 TDs; 65 receptions, 700 yards, 2 TDs
What do you think?