Thursday, July 5, 2012

Pats' tailback situation could go in many directions

Photo: Beth Hart, Flickr 

With the free-agent departure of the Patriots' most recent feature back in BenJarvus Green-Ellis, New England has a serious hole to fill in its high-caliber offense. Who will be the No. 1 tailback at the start of the season? It could be anybody. Or nobody.

The Patriots have two second-year backs they drafted in Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen; both were limited last year behind Green-Ellis.

Ridley is poised to take over the majority of the workload, as he was responsible for all of the team's rushes of more than 20 yards last season (five), while also racking up 441 yards on only 87 carries (5.2-yard average).

While faster and seemingly more agile than Green-Ellis — and with a similar between-the-tackles running game — Ridley doesn't possess the ball security Green-Ellis does. (Not many players do; Green-Ellis has never fumbled in his professional career.) Ridley fumbled twice last season: once in the regular-season finale vs. Buffalo and again in the playoffs vs. Denver. While neither mistake was detrimental, they came in consecutive games, and as a result, coach Bill Belichick sat Ridley for the rest of the postseason.

Vereen was selected before Ridley in the 2011 NFL Draft (56th overall), but his running style is more suitable as an outside-the-tackles, third-down utility than one that fills Green-Ellis' shoes. Along with the returning Danny Woodhead and a maybe-returning Kevin Faulk, it really seems like Belichick will let the players decide who gets the ball most. Vereen's opportunity is as good anyone else's. He scored a touchdown last season on just 15 attempts.

The addition of Joseph Addai, who was signed as a free agent after six years with the Colts, could have a large impact, too.

Addai's goalline value was probably a good selling point for Belichick, who also hosted vets Ryan Grant and Tim Hightower in hopes of filling that role recently filled by players like Corey Dillon and Fred Taylor. Addai amassed 39 rushing touchdowns and nine receiving scores while in Indy. He broke the 1,000-yard mark in both of his first two seasons but has been limited since, missing 12 regular-season games over his last two seasons. He averaged 3.7 yard per carry last season with the league-worst Colts.

The Patriots have a solid back in Woodhead, as well. The small-and-quick back has had little problem adjusting to the New England offense since being signed as a free-agent a few seasons back. He highlighted his value with a touchdown in the Super Bowl in February, but also lost a fumble in a tight AFC title game vs. the Ravens.

New England could also bring back longtime Patriot and former captain Faulk. One of the few remaining Pats with a Super Bowl championship ring, Faulk has been extremely limited over the past two seasons with injuries but, if brought back and able to stay healthy, his 13 seasons of experience are definitely valuable to a young and still-learning backfield.

Undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden could also find some work on the Patriots' offense. At 5-foot-11, 215 pounds, he's built extremely similar to Addai.

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