The Patriots have the most high-flying offense in the NFL and a lot of that can be attributed to one Mr. Tom Brady and the elite passing attack. Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and formerly Wes Welker all provided value on the field and in fantasy, while also holding on to most of the spotlight.
Last year, Stevan Ridley burst onto the season as a top 10 running back, ranking 3rd in TDs, 6th in carries, and 7th in yards. Ridley notched out as the 9th ranked fantasy running back, lower than expected due to his lack of production in the receiving game. Only two running back on the top 10 had fewer than 196 yards receiving and 1 touchdown: Ridley and rookie sensation Alfred Morris. If Ridley can work on his receiving, he could easily push his way up the rankings for running backs.
Ridley has plenty going for him on a fantasy front:
1) He's got tread to spare. There's known issues of players breaking down after 350 touches and there's also a natural regression of production for those players coming off such herculean seasons. Of those other running backs in the top 10, Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster both sniffed the 350 carry mark (348 and 351 respectively), while Alfred Morris ran the ball 335 times.
While a stark fall in production for Peterson should be expected, don't expect Ridley to surpass him. Additionally, Morris is based in a Shanahan offense and should continue to produce high numbers. Foster, on the other hand, might regress back into Ridley territory, or below. He's one of two running backs to run the ball 300+ times in two of the past three seasons (the other is Michael Turner) and his yards-per-carry (YPC) has fallen each of the past three seasons from 4.9 to 4.4 to 4.1. His wheels might not be off, but I wouldn't expect him to finish as a top 3 running backs, maybe not even a top 5.
Ridley, on the other hand, had a solid 290 carries (55.4% of the team's carries) and should likely increase that to 60% as Danny Woodhead's 14.5% of the snaps should be split up amongst the remaining running backs on the roster (Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden). And while the Patriots likely will regress from the absurdly high number of snaps last season, look for a more weighted focus on the running game to grant Ridley the same amount of opportunities. And that weighted focus comes because...
2) The Patriots have to run the ball. There are a couple reasons out there for why they have to run the ball, so let's split it up into further subsections and see what the truth is:
a) The passing game is in flux. Rob Gronkowski is questionable to start the season, while Danny Amendola is the only receiver to show consistency in camp. It's likely that the Patriots will enter the season with just Aaron Hernandez and Amendola as top targets as Brady continues to develop a rapport with his other targets. Look for the Patriots to rely heavily on their run game in the early part of the season.
In 2006, the Patriots lost both Deion Branch and David Givens, who were replaced with Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney, mirroring the turnover the Patriots have had at the position this offseason. The 2006 team averaged just over 31 carries a game over the full season, but blew it out of the water with 41, 39, and 41 carries in games 1, 2, and 4. Conversely, the passing game saw a dip well below their season average in those games- so don't be surprised if you see that same output this season.
b) The offense is good. The Patriots will score points. They'll likely score many more points that the opposing teams. This means that the Patriots will have leads late in the game with clock to kill- and that's where Ridley comes into play. The Patriots had 16.7% of their offensive snaps up 7+ points in the 4th quarter. They ran on 26.6% of those snaps. For the rest of the game, they ran on 23.9% of the plays. The difference of 2.7%, while seemingly small, is actually statistically significant (95% CI) due to the total number of plays over the course of the season.
That said: the difference may attribute to only a snap or two over the course of the season, which is hardly enough reason to justify this as a viable reason to draft Ridley. A factor? Yes. But absolutely not a reason.
c) The team wins when they score. Check out these stats:
The Patriots lead the league with 35 games with one or more rushing touchdowns over the past three regular seasons. The Vikings and Giants are tied second with 34.
The Patriots are 33-2 in those games, a .943 winning percentage. The next highest is the Falcons at .897.
The Patriots lead the league with 21 games with two or more rushing touchdowns over the past three regular seasons. The Texans are second with 17.
The Patriots are 19-2 in those games, the only two losses coming when Danny Woodhead scores.
With Woodhead gone, clearly the Patriots will be undefeated in multi-rushing TD games, because stats.
The Patriots are 11-0 in the regular season when Stevan Ridley scores a rushing touchdown.
The Patriots are good at running the ball effectively (something we couldn't say three years ago) and Belichick understands the importance of complementary football. The Patriots will run the ball because it helps them win games. Ridley should see the end zone with double digit scores for the second season in a row.
3. Upswing. Ridley is just getting better at this point. The Patriots will have continuity and growth on the offensive line as tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer continue to grow and hit their prime. Guard Logan Mankins hasn't been healthy for two seasons, but his health could open up huge holes for Ridley. Center Ryan Wendell is entering a contract year and was Pro Football Focus's #1 run blocking center in his first year as a starter. The weak link, right guard Dan Connolly, is getting pushed by Marcus Cannon for time- and Cannon is a monster in his own right.
So Ridley is returning after a big season to play behind a line that's only going to get better. And looking back over the past 10 seasons, we can compare Ridley's 2012 season to other players' years and evaluate the growth that similar players had in their subsequent year. The outlook? Pretty darn good.
The similar players posted an average of roughly 300 carries for 1400 yards and 12 scores- definitely a possible season for Ridley. Ridley should have all the opportunities in the world to leave his mark on the field and, barring injury, could definitely reach those heights.
Let's take a step back though, as not everything is perfect for Ridley. The Patriots have featured a committee for the past six seasons, ever since Laurence Maroney fumbled the baton pass from feature back Corey Dillon. Of course, the Patriots haven't had a running back with Ridley's talent, but look for the Patriots to still try and spread the ball to keep him healthy and fresh.
Last season, four players carried the ball 56+ times (Ridley, Woodhead, Vereen, and Brandon Bolden). As said before, the loss of Woodhead should increase snaps for everyone involved. One concern for Ridley's fantasy outlook is how much value will Vereen steal from him.
There's no question that Ridley is a much, much better running between the tackles. However, Vereen has a better all around game and looks to inherit much of Woodhead's 3rd down production. When given the chance, Vereen answered well in the playoffs and looks to build off of that momentum this off-season. Should Vereen capitalize on the snaps provided on 3rd down, there's no question that Belichick will try and utilize Vereen as much as strategically possible.
If Vereen comes out strong, Ridley's growth outlook over last season falls. He might post similar numbers to last season if Vereen eats away at his opportunities. Still, that leaves Ridley as a top 10 fantasy running back next year.
High: Ridley has the potential to be a top 5 fantasy running back (Peterson, Martin, Lynch, Spiller, Rice) if he reaches the projected growth levels.
Low: Ignoring injury, Ridley's low hinges upon Vereen's success. If Vereen explodes on the field, Ridley could fall to the 12-15 range (SJax, Forte, CJ?K, Bush, Gore)
Expected: Look for Ridley to stick around in the 6-11 range (Morris, Foster, Richardson, Charles, McCoy) as a solid producer. He won't post the same receiving numbers, but he should make up for it with inflated rushing touchdowns. If you're in a PPR league, Ridley's value should slip to outside of the top 10, but look for Ridley to put up another consistently productive season.