Rookie Vereen must catch up quickly


Rookie Vereen must catch up quickly

By A. Sherrod Blakely Celtics Insider
Follow @sherrodbcsn
FOXBORO Shane Vereen carried the ball 11 times for 34 yards in Thursday's 18-17 preseason loss to the New York Giants.

Not that big a deal, right?

When you consider the hamstring injury that sidelined the rookie running back for most of training camp, getting an opportunity to be on the field was in itself a victory.

Forget about playing.

Vereen acknowledges not being able to participate in practice has made his first foray into the NFL a frustrating one at times.

"The main thing is I want to be there for my team and help them out any way possible," Vereen said following the game. "I was able to get out there today a little bit."

Like any player, whether you're a pup like Vereen or an All-Pro, opportunities to get on the field in preseason games are the best gauge to see just how far a player has come -- or how far they have to go -- before the regular season begins.

"We're trying to evaluate everybody, including the veterans," said Pats coach Bill Belichick. "What veterans did last year, that's great, but that's last year. It's really where they are now and what they can contribute to this team, so I think they have to prove themselves just like the rookies do."

But the difference is that with veterans, they have a track record of having proven themselves NFL-ready.

Rookies? Not so much. Just about everything rookies do is a first-time experience.

When you compound the challenges of everything being new with an injury, it's understandable why Vereen's approach to Thursday's game was a bit different. As a running back, the objective of most games is to avoid as many hits as possible.

But when you've been shelved for as long as Vereen was, any contact is good contact.

"That was the big thing about his first preseason game, being able to bang a little bit," he said. "It was a sigh of relief when I finally did."

But for Vereen to get an opportunity to play meaningful reps this year, a lot of things will have to fall into place in a hurry.

Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis have established themselves as New England's top two running backs. And with only Thursday's game under his belt, Vereen will have a difficult time pushing ahead of players such as fellow rookie Stevan Ridley or veteran Sammy Morris.

Although things have been challenging, Vereen acknowledged earlier that having played in a pro system like the one he was in at Cal under Jeff Tedford, helped a lot.

"The system that we used back in college is pretty spread, and we did a lot of different things," said Vereen, who is the latest in a long line of Cal running backs (Jahvid Best, Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett) to land in the NFL. "It helped me understand defenses."

Now if he can just stay healthy enough to put that knowledge to use, and potentially move up the depth chart.

Knowing he has missed a considerable amount of time due to his injury, Vereen is eager to prove himself on the field not only to himself, but also his teammates.

However, he says he won't put too much pressure on himself to perform.

"I don't think I need to step outside and try too hard, step outside of what I do," he said. "I have confidence in myself and whatever role coaches want me to play. I'm more than willing to step into that role."

A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached at Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn

Putting Stephen Gostkowski's struggles in context


Putting Stephen Gostkowski's struggles in context

Stephen Gostkowski doesn’t miss field goals often and he never misses extra points. His performance this season might not be the end of the world, but there’s no denying his departure from the norm: He’s missing field goals more often and, as was the case in the AFC Championship last season, he hasn’t been automatic on PATs. 

The stats are well-known by now: He’s 9-for-12 on field goals and 16-of-17 on extra points. His three missed field goals are tied for the most he’s had in a season dating back to 2013, and the current season is only six games young. 

For those who have followed the Patriots in recent years, it’s only natural to feel the sky is falling with Gostkowski. After all, the former All-Pro has been nearly peerless in recent seasons, leading the league in field goals made in 2013 and 2014 and tying for second last season. He was arguably the best in the league, and now, six games into the 2016 season, he’s been mediocre. 

The question is whether the Patriots can live with mediocre, and the answer is “definitely.” 

Of the 10 playoff teams last season, four had kickers who missed at least five field goals, including the two Super Bowl participants. Denver’s Brandon McManus had five missed field goals last season; Carolina’s Graham Gano had six. 

The list of good teams with OK kicking performances goes on, and it undoubtedly includes past Patriots teams. Remember, Adam Vinatieri missed nine field goals during the Patriots Super Bowl-winning 2003 season. 

Then there are Gostkowski’s past seasons. He’s obviously had a tremendous career, but he’s had less glamorous seasons sprinkled in with the All-Pro performances. Everyone has lived to tell about it. 

Take 2012. Gostkowski missed six field goals, tying a career-worst set in his rookie year of 2006. He still finished tied for eighth in field goals made, one behind Justin Tucker and ahead of, among others, Vinatieri. The Patriots went 12-4 and reached the AFC Championship, a game the Pats might have won against Baltimore if they didn’t rely on Gostkowski for more than half (seven) of their points (13). 

Gostkowski is currently tied for 15th with nine field goals made. He’s yet to have a particularly costly miss like he did with the PAT against the Broncos last postseason, although his lone field goal attempt in the Pats’ Week 4 loss to the Bills -- a 48-yard miss -- would have made it a 10-point game early in the second half. 

At his current rate, he’ll miss a career-high eight field goals. That is not good, and while it wouldn’t quite put him in end-of-the-line-David-Akers territory (Akers missed 13 field goals in 2012, his second to last season), it would put him in uncharted territory for a great career. 

If there's any silver lining with Gostkowski's numbers down, it's that he doesn't seem to have lost his leg. His 53-yarder in the season-opener was four yards shy of his longest kick from last season. 

Having a capable kicker is important. Having an elite one is a luxury the Patriots have had for the majority of the last 20 seasons. A miss in a key spot can doom a season, but Gostkowski still has time to correct what’s been a down year.