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Since Corey Dillon’s retirement after the 2006 season, the Patriots have adopted an unofficial implementation of running back-by-committee that has supported some of the most potent and productive offenses that the NFL has seen.
The 2011 season is shaping up to feature the most versatile group yet. They are also poised to take on a larger share of the offensive load now that deep threat Randy Moss is out of the picture and the depth at the position has improved. As of right now, there are six running backs on the roster: established veterans Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris, last season’s reliable utility backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, and rookies Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.
Vereen is the RB with the least experience heading into the 2011 season, as he has dealt with some health issues in preseason so far. Vereen comes to the Pats from the University of California where he played in 38 games, started 19, and set multiple school records at the position.
These include third in rushing TDs with 29, fourth in total TDs with 35, fifth in all-purpose yards with 4,069, seventh in rushing yards with 2,834. He also rushed for 100+ yards in 11 games, good for seventh all time at Cal. In 556 carries he averaged 5.1 yards per attempt and 74.6 yards-per-game, and his career single rush was 81 yards against Michigan State in 2008.
Pros: He’s a good receiving back, making at least one reception in 37 of his 38 games in college. He’s a consistent player with a good bill of health through college, despite some of his preseason issues so far.
Cons: At 5’9” 205lbs, he’s significantly smaller than Sammy Morris, Stevan Ridley and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and his skill set is similar to that of Woodhead and Faulk, as a smaller and quicker guy that can double as a receiver. So at a glance, it’s tough to find where he could bring something different to this diverse group.
Fans already recognize Ridley for his notable play in the first two preseason games for the Patriots. In their two games against the Jaguars and the Buccaneers, Ridley amassed 30 carries for 148 yards and two rushing touchdowns, as well as 10 receptions for 74 yards and one receiving touchdown.
A standout in his junior year at LSU, Ridley was a 2010 first team All-SEC along with being the elected 2010 Offensive Team Captain. His 15 touchdowns in one season ties current teammate Kevin Faulk for fourth in the LSU record books for TDs in a season, and he is just the 13th RB in LSU history to have a 1,000 yard rushing season.
Pros: At 6’0 and about 225 lbs. he is the biggest and strongest back of the bunch. He has shown his ability to stay vertical and pound the line of scrimmage, and has quick feet that help him change direction quickly.
Cons: He really didn’t have the experience of being a lead back until his junior year of college, so he will definitely have to grow into the role of an every day guy in the NFL. Ridley should spend the season working behind BJGE and Morris, if Morris is kept on the squad.
Morris played a key role as a third running back and a decent fullback during the Patriots undefeated regular season in 2007. Since then he has battled injuries, sporadically contributing as third or fourth on the depth chart and as their only fullback option. Morris’ best statistical season with the Patriots came in 2008, helping Matt Cassel and the offense overcome the loss of Tom Brady for the year. He accumulated 727 yards including 55.9 yard per game, with seven touchdowns and just one fumble.
Pros: As a veteran who always keeps himself in good shape, he is reliable go-to guy who knows the Patriots schemes and is familiar playing with Brady. He’s almost guaranteed to protect the ball and is a threat in short and goal situations because of his size.
Cons: At 34-years-old he has lost a step or two, and has had some health issues that have kept him off the field for significant amounts of time.
Kevin Faulk has played 154 games in the NFL and has spent his entire career with the Patriots since they drafted him in 1999. He is one of just three players on the active roster that won all three Super Bowls in the early half of last decade, along with Matt Light and Tom Brady.
Faulk is a fan favorite not only for the length of his tenure, but for his diverse skill set. At 5’8” and barely 200 lbs, his small stature helps him slip through gaps and offers good speed for yards after the catch.
He’s also been the Patriots best receiving running back for over a decade, being brought in often on third downs as both a rushing and receiving threat, and even as a reliable blocker for his trusted QB. In his career with the Patriots, Faulk has combined his rushing and receiving talents for over 7,200 yards and 31 touchdowns. He’s also amassed over 4,000 yards as a kick returner and 923 yards returning punts.
Pros: Having just drafted two young RBs, the Patriots could serve themselves well to have Faulk around as a mentor. He is as familiar with Belichick’s offensive style as anyone can be, and has always maintained a good leadership role as a veteran. The young successful tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have been very vocal about how vet Alge Crumpler’s mentorship and guidance helped them to excel as rookies.
Cons: When Faulk went down with a season ending injury last season, every one said no one could replace him as a clutch third down player. Then Danny Woodhead came along, emerging last year with an uncannily similar skill set. Considering this along with his age and health issues, Faulk may have lost some of his on-field value to the team.
Coming to the Patriots in 2010 after a few years as a relatively unnoticed back-up on the Jets, Danny Woodhead made an immediate and unexpected impact. Eerily mirroring the dynamism of his injured predecessor, Woodhead rushed for 547 yards and 5 touchdowns in his 14 games with the Patriots. He also had 379 yards receiving and 1 touchdown catch, as well as 3 catches over 20 yards and 1 catch over 40 yards. His ability to kick start the offense with explosiveness and energy has created a mystique around the young player
Pros: Woodhead is listed at 5’8”, 195 lbs, which is generous. But despite being so small, he’s not afraid to tackle and make defensive plays while on the field, resembling the toughness of offensive teammate Wes Welker. His style is complimentary to that of Green-Ellis who is a tougher runner and stockier, and more of a rushing threat in the red zone.
Cons: While his fearless style of play is an admirable asset to his game, it also put him in the line of fire for major injuries. Currently he is dealing with the repercussions of a brutal helmet to helmet hit in the preseason game against the Bucs that sent him flying and inspired rumors of a possible concussion.
BJGE, dubbed “the Lawfirm” by fans, certainly laid down the law last year in impressive season. Coming into the 2010 season, Green-Ellis had seen limited time on the field playing behind Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Morris and Faulk. Turns out he was ready to step up to the challenge, rushing for 1,008 yards last season, averaging 63 rushing yards per game. He also had a notable 13 touchdowns and 0 fumbles.
His ability to protect the ball became a staple of his on-field contributions. Consequently, the offense often turned to him in red zone situations. Unlike Maroney, Green-Ellis rarely lost yardage by stuttering laterally at the line of scrimmage, instead capitalizing for on his eye for finding the weak spot in the defense to advance even one or two yards.
Pros: Coming off a great season, Green-Ellis seems to be riding the wave rather than slipping backward. He has looked strong and effective in training camp, and has proven he can anchor this running back core, even if his style is not flashy. With such a diverse set of slot and short-route receiver, BJGE can capitalize on minimized coverage at the line
Cons: To me, there aren’t too many cons with him at this point and considering where the Patriots offense is at. Being picky, you could say he is not a franchise running back. He doesn’t have the dynamism of an Adrian Peterson or even Corey Dillon when he played for the Pats. But if he can get the Patriots between 800-1,000 yards a season, you can’t hate that.