By: Steve Balestrieri
A healthy Shane Vereen and the addition of James White should help Tom Brady in a big way in the Patriots passing game. (USA TODAY Images)
With training camp slated to start in less than three weeks, the New England Patriots will be looking to make strides in many areas. The Patriots offense in 2014 will be looking for much bigger contributions in the passing game from not only its wide receivers but from also their running backs.
With a lack of depth at the tight end position, one area that the team will look to for increased production in the passing game is from out of the backfield especially with Shane Vereen and rookie James White.
Vereen and veteran Brandon Bolden were expected to provide that dimension in 2013 and Vereen certainly looked the part, getting off to a great start in Week 1 in Buffalo. With a fleet of rookie wide receivers and missing tight end Rob Gronkowski for the first six weeks of the year, Vereen was being looked to as a way to offer QB Tom Brady another outlet in the passing game. And with over 150 yards combined rushing and receiving, he was a huge spark in the comeback win.
Injury/Lack of Production: But during the game, Vereen suffered a broken wrist and missed the next eight games. He played the remainder of the season with a cast on his arm which seemed to hinder him and suffered from numerous drops down the stretch.
Bolden, has never been able to consistently produce from week to week and while he had a couple of decent games catching the ball in Vereen’s absence, notably Atlanta and in Cincinnati, he didn’t provide nearly enough spark out of the backfield that was needed.
In the eight weeks that Vereen was out of the lineup, Patriots running backs accounted for only 27 receptions for 171 yards, an average of only 3.3 catches for 21.3 yards per game. Stevan Ridley and LaGarrette Blount weren’t big contributors in the passing game only catching 10 and two passes for the entire year, but Ridley hauled in nine of his ten during the time that Vereen was missing. Fullback James Develin caught four passes for the year, and one during this time frame, in a week two win against the Jets.
Blount has since moved on via free agency to Pittsburgh and while Vereen only played in half of 2013’s game still hauled in 47 passes for 427 yards and three touchdowns. Projecting those numbers over a 16 game season and Vereen would have been in the neighborhood of 94 catches for over 850 yards.
White Adds Another Option: Adding in the rookie White from Wisconsin will certainly help matters. Built similarly to Vereen (5’10, 204), White has sure hands, excellent vision and good burst, he’s a very good option out of the backfield in the passing game. And like Vereen, he’s a good pass blocker as well. White is a good inside runner, surprising for someone his size and had only 2 fumbles in over 750 touches in his college career, something that can be circled especially when the Patriots are in the red-zone. “Ball security is job security,” he told the media at his introductory press conference.
White could be looked at as Vereen’s eventual replacement as he, Ridley and Bolden all enter the final year of their contracts, but the Patriots also have the option of using both in a two-back set in their “20” or “21” personnel packages that give them great options in the passing game.Sharing reps will not be an issue with White, as he was part of a running back committee in Wisconsin and will be in New England as well.
Look at TC Roster: With a training camp roster at running back of Ridley, Vereen, Bolden, White, Jonas Gray, Stephen Houston and Roy Finch, competition will be intense on the field. Ridley, Vereen and White are virtual locks for the roster. The team has been working out FB Devlin at tight end this spring and he may remain there and still contribute in short yardage in the backfield.
Gray and Houston are bigger backs much like Ridley, more adept at providing the power running inside than in the passing game, the wildcard remains the diminutive Finch at 5’7, 167 pounds. Finch has an uphill battle to make the roster out of training camp but is guaranteed to be a fan favorite once people get to watch him weave in and out of would be tacklers.
His path may be best suited toward the return game, but one look at him in mini-camp and it is easy to imagine Bill Belichick trying to get the ball in his hands in space somewhere in the passing game. Mark him down as someone to watch.
So while the Patriots will be looking for increased production out of their second year wide receivers, they should also be getting a big increase out of the backfield in 2014. Adding in White and a healthy Vereen to the mix should reap immediate dividends for the team to start off in the right direction.
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