Patriots positional review: Rule of three backs

Patriots positional review: Rule of three backs
February 10, 2014, 5:00 pm
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Over the next two weeks, Tom E. Curran will analyze the Patriots position-by-position as we head into the offseason. Today: Running backs. Tomorrow: Offensive line.

The Patriots running game continues to evolve into a bigger part of the offense. As a team, the Patriots ran for 2,065 yards and 19 TDs. The past two seasons, they’ve run the ball more (470 attempts in 2013, 523 in 2012) than in any Brady-QB’d season since 2006. It’s their highest two-season number of attempts since 2003-04.

The difference now is the three-prong attack. Backs have specific roles but there’s enough overlap so they’re not screwed when one is down. Stevan Ridley is clearly their preference as lead back with the best complement of skills, but LeGarrette Blount’s performance as a throwback pounder softened the blow when Ridley went in the tank with fumbling issues. Shane Vereen is a changeup back with between-the-tackles capability. In a perfect world, the Patriots would make his a Marshall Faulk-type. They’d settle in a second for a Kevin Faulk-type. Until he can stay healthy, it’s all potential unrealized.
 
STEVAN RIDLEY
AGE: 25 (1/27/89)
STATS: 178 carries, 773 yards, 7 TDs, 10 receptions, 62 yards
CONTRACT: Expires after 2014
2014 CAP HIT: $939,750 ($777,750 salary, $162,000 prorated bonus)
 
If Stevan Ridley were a stock, now would be the time to buy. Fumbling issues (4 lost in 2013) that have dogged him during his first three seasons played out publicly in 2013 in games of import -- Denver and Carolina -- and his resulting banishment was well-documented. I say “Ridley” you say “fumble.” That’s where we are right now. But his acceleration through the hole, second-level burst and ability to run with both power and elusiveness make him one of the league’s more talented runners. Most of his fumbles are a result of either inattentiveness or leaving the ball unprotected while fighting for yards in traffic. It’s fixable.
 
SHANE VEREEN
AGE: 24 (3/2/89)
STATS: 44 carries, 208 yards, 1 TD; 47 receptions, 427 yards, 3 TDs
CONTRACT: Expires after 2014
2014 CAP HIT: $1,101,275.00 ($746,875 salary, $254,300 prorated bonus, $100,000 workout bonus)
 
Tremendously talented but he’s either hard-luck or brittle. During an electric season-opening win over the Bills, Vereen broke his wrist. That cast a pall over his 14-carry, 101-yard day on the ground and his 7-catch, 58-yard performance through the air. Vereen missed eight games then picked up where he left off. But the loss of Rob Gronkowski allowed defenses to focus on Vereen as the next-best key to the Patriots offensive explosiveness. He was held under wraps for the final three games of the regular season and the postseason. Vereen can’t carry an offense. But as a second-banana, he’s got to be one of the more dangerous guys in the league. Big season for both he and Ridley coming up.
 
LEGARRETTE BLOUNT
AGE: 27 (12/5/86)
STATS: 153 carries, 772 yards, 7 TDs; 2 catches, 38 yards
CONTRACT: Free agent
2014 CAP HIT: none
 
Rehabbed his image as a pain in the posterior and resurrected a career that was running aground. Blount now finds himself in a spot where he needs to read the tea leaves. Should he re-sign with the team that provides safe haven and embraced him? Or should he take advantage of his newfound earning potential on the open market? A running back’s window for good money is small. But finding the right situation is difficult. If the Patriots can get Blount back with an offer that isn’t a downright insult to him, that’s a 'W.' Just spitballing here, but two years and $7 million with $4 million in signing bonus would work both ways. Blount would be 29 when his deal expires and -- if things go well -- he may be positioned for another nice deal to close out his career. The Patriots will have to weigh how to pay Blount with Ridley and Vereen coming up next season.
 
BRANDON BOLDEN
AGE: 24 (1/26/90)
STATS: 55 carries, 271 yards, 3 TDs; 21 receptions, 152 yards
CONTRACT: Expires after 2014
2014 CAP HIT: $574,584 ($570,000 salary, $4,584 prorated signing bonus)
 
Bolden is still a developing player who was the understudy to Vereen when Vereen went down. Bolden hasn’t yet shown great mastery of blitz-pickup or pass-blocking and he’s a bit stiff as a pass-catcher. He doesn’t always hit the hole with the aggressiveness you’d like but when he does, he looks similar to Ridley. Bolden probably needs a situation where he gets more opportunities so it can be sussed out whether he’s legit or a bit player. Reminds me of Patrick Pass.
 
JAMES DEVELIN
AGE: 25 (7/23/88)
STATS: 4 carries, 10 yards, 1 TD; 4 catches, 62 yards
CONTRACT: Expires after 2014
2014 CAP HIT: $570,000
 
Develin filled a true fullback’s role in the Patriots offense and his contributions improved as the season went along. Very solid blocker at the point of attack who plays with excellent strength and power and blocks through people, he is the tangible proof of the direction the Patriots offense is heading in.