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2012 Patriots Running Backs Preview: Ridley the Feature Back?

Patriots training camp (Photo credit Beth Hart)

Despite being one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL over the past five seasons, the New England Patriots still have flaws that have been exposed in major ways at inopportune times. From the 2010 Divisional Round loss to the Jets, to a pair of Super Bowl losses versus the Giants, there has been one common denominator in playoff heartbreak while Coach Belichick’s offense is on the field…an underwhelming ground game.

Read: Other 2012 Patriots Previews

Some argue that it lacked explosion (BenJarvus Green-Ellis), had an inability to read defenses (Laurence Maroney), and just were not built to carry an offense (Danny Woodhead and Kevin Faulk, among others). But with the return of wunderkind Josh McDaniels to retain his offensive coordinator position, will the Patriots’ running game finally be good enough to capture that elusive fourth Lombari Trophy?

With several prominent veteran backs on the free agent wire (Cedric Benson, Ryan Grant, Cadillac Williams), and Kevin Faulk unsigned at the moment, Belichick’s lack of activity could prove his confidence in the gentlemen listed below to reached the promised land of New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII.

Stevan Ridley

Drafted in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Ridley is assumed to take over the lead duties in the New England backfield.  During his rookie campaign, Ridley showed promise as the season concluded with 210 yards and averaging 5.4 yardsper-attempt over the final three weeks.  The LSU product’s best outing was his 97 yards on 10 carries and one score (his lone endzone plunge of the regular season) in a Week 4 triumph in Oakland.  In the effort, the 5’11″ rusher broke out four carries of 15+ yards.

However, his butterfingers prevented him from making crucial plays during the postseason. A fumble in Week 17 against Buffalo, and another in the playoff win over Denver overshadowed the rookie’s solid effort, and earned Ridley a spot on the bench for the rest of the postseason.  If he can show the potential of last season while cutting down his mistakes, Ridley will emerge as the #1 back and gain over 1,000 yards.

Danny Woodhead

The former Jets cast-off has emerged as a fan favorite during his short stint in Foxboro. A fourth-year rusher from Chadron St., Woodhead has excelled in third-down situations, and flourishes in return work as well. Despite only carrying the rock more than ten times just once (a Week 1 victory over Miami), Woodhead remains a viable part of the New England offensive scheme.

Woodhead finished with just 351 yards on the ground, but had a nice 5.1 average with one touchdown. Woodhead’s 8.7 yards-per-reception, and 21.9 yards-per-kick-return will ultimately keep him in the lineup. While he will never be the #1 guy in McDaniel’s backfield, this fan favorite will continue to see reps in key situations.

Shane Vereen

The 56th overall pick of the 2011 draft, Vereen saw limited time within Tom Brady’s offense last season. Vereen finished 2011 with just 57 yards and a score on 15 carries. The California alum dressed in just five contests, and recorded carries in only two.  Praised out of school for his quick moves, open field ability, and hands out of the backfield, Vereen will look to usurp snaps from Woodhead as the squad’s go to third-down back.

Brandon Bolden

The biggest question mark of this group has also drawn the most raves in training camp thus far.  Despite being an undrafted rookie out of Mississippi, Bolden was an effective runner against stout SEC defenses during his collegiate career, and especially during his 2011 senior campaign for the Rebels.  While this BenJarvus Green-Ellis replacement/clone tallied only 472 yards in ’11 due to injury, he averaged 4.9 yards a carry and plunged into the endzone four times.  He was also an effective pass catcher, averaging 10.4 yards a haul. His 2011 season was marred by a broken ankle suffered in a Week 1 game against BYU, clearly hindering his efforts.

Bolden’s junior year was something to behold however, as he finished the 2010 season with 947 yards on the ground, with 14 rushing touchdowns. The 5’11”, 280 pound rusher ranked second in school history in total touchdowns (33) and rushing touchdowns (27). His potential, coupled with the release of Joseph Addai at the end of July, could increase his role within the offense. It was not be surprising if Bolden is the leading Patriots’ runner at the end of the season.

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