By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots first training camp practice is slated for July 26 at the Foxboro training fields behind the stadium and we’ll be there reporting on the daily comings and goings once the pads begin to pop. One area of the roster that isn’t being talked about very much but may be relied upon heavily in the early going of the season is at running back.
With over 85 percent of the production in the passing game from 2012 gone or injured, a vast array of new faces will be looking to carve out a niche and a roster slot at WR and TE. So it goes without saying, that at least in the early going the Patriots may rely more on the running game until all those “shiny hood ornaments” (with a wink to Kerry Byrne) are ready to assume a big role in the Patriots offense.
Shane Vereen is expected to make a big impact in the passing and rushing game in 2013 opposite Stevan Ridley. (FILE:USPresswire)
It wouldn’t be a shock to see the team carry five running backs into the season and while the top pieces are in place, there is still some maneuvering room for some camp competition and slots half-back roster and where they potentially fit the offense.
Stevan Ridley- 5’11, 220 lbs Ridley was the main workhorse for the Patriots on the ground last season and he looks to be the first running back to rush for back-to-back 1000 yard seasons in the Bill Belichick era. Ridley will anchor a group of large backs, one of the larger groups, preseason wise since the Hoodie has taken over.
Ridley was very productive in 2012 playing in over 40 percent of the team’s snaps. One area where he and the team felt he could improve upon is breaking tackles, something he ranked near the bottom of the league at. He spent this off-season bulking up and appears to be in fantastic shape going into training camp.
Shane Vereen- 5’9 205 lbs, Vereen is poised to become that change of pace and third down back that Danny Woodhead produced so well at the past few years. Vereen is going to be a very big target coming out of the backfield this season in the passing game.
Don’t be surprised to see the Patriots in a lot of two back sets with Ridley and Vereen especially early in the season while the situation at WR and TE works itself out. One way the Patriots may choose to utilize Vereen to ease the sting on the loss of Aaron Hernandez is put him in motion to the outside, isolating him on a linebacker and either throw to him or run depending upon the matchups.
Leon Washington- 5’8 203 lbs, Washington has a similar skill set to Vereen on offense but truth be told, the Patriots would do well to limit Washington’s snaps to less than 10 per game. It isn’t because Washington couldn’t be effective in the Patriots offense, he could be, but because he is so valuable in the kick return game.
Washington averaged 29 yards per return last season in Seattle, the Patriots as a team in 2012 averaged 21.2 per return. With a jump in nearly 8 yards per return, that is a huge jump in field position for Tom Brady and the offense to start with. And I think they will protect him for just that and use him sparingly on offense unless he’s really needed.
Brandon Bolden- 5’11, 220 lbs seemed to have worked his way into a solid roster slot in the middle of last season. Against Buffalo on the road Bolden and the Patriots ran roughshod over the Bills who, wary of the Tom Brady passing attack, played most of the game in their sub-packages. Bolden gained 137 yards on just 16 carries, good for a gaudy 8.6 average. He followed that up with a solid effort against Denver the next week.
But then he got hurt with a knee injury and then was suspended for four games for PEDs and wasn’t the same down the stretch. Worse, rumors of him being complacent and satisfied in the locker room won’t bode well with the coaching staff.
Bolden missed all of the spring workouts (OTAs Mini-camps) because of a foot injury. He will be pushed by Blount and the loser of this camp competition may find himself out of a job.
LaGarrette Blount-6’0, 252 lbs is coming to the Patriots looking for a fresh start after a promising career start in Tampa Bay went stale. A downhill runner, Blount is actually more effective in space than he is as a short yardage battering ram.
Blount comes with his fair share of baggage, off-field issues and a penchant for oversleeping and being late for meetings and practice will not be tolerated in Foxboro. But if he shows up motivated and in shape, he could be a nice pick-up as a depth player behind Ridley who can come in and be very effective.
Given Bolden’s injury status, Blount may be the perfect foil to get the best from both of them this summer.
George Winn- At 5’11, 210 lbs, don’t overlook Winn this summer as he could be a darkhorse candidate to make the squad. Winn had a very productive final season at Cincinnati and is a very physical downhill style runner who gets the most out of his talent.
Looking at some highlight reel tapes of Winn, he’s very reminiscent of former Patriots RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis who now plays for the Bengals. While neither the fastest, nor the most powerful runner, Winn keeps his shoulders square and always keeps his feet moving and like Green-Ellis before him, could work himself right into a roster slot.
Fullbacks James Develin and Ben Bartholomew face a true uphill battle to make the roster. The Patriots offense doesn’t really incorporate one and at times when they’ve utilized one in the backfield, they’ve been just as apt to use a tight end, (Hernandez and Hoomanawanui) or an extra offensive lineman (Dan Connolly).
While Develin was active for one game in 2012, the chances of either of those two making the roster is prohibitive at this time.
The team has plenty of depth and nice mix at the running back position going into 2013. Whether or not they keep four, five or even six RBs (doubtful), each of them can be a productive player. And they’ll rely on them especially in the early going.