Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, the season of glory is nearly upon us. I can only be talking about one thing – that’s right, FOOTBALL SEASON IS ALMOST HERE!! Football is my absolute favorite. I love it. I love fantasy football, I love Sundays, I love over-indulging in the glorious Game of Kings, plainly said I mothe*****ing love football. As the pre-season winds down, the murky waters of roster battles begin to clear. For my hometown Patriots, while aspirations and potential are high, burning questions remain. In the first of a three-part pre-season series addressing three key question areas on the minds of Pats fans everywhere, this week we’ll attempt to decipher the roles of the running backs in the 2014 scheme.
Scholar and I got the chance to go to Friday’s pre-season game, the third and the best look at the team’s starters before the season begins in earnest (with starters usually playing little of the final pre-season game to prevent injury). One thing that was clear from that game, both inside Gillette and from your couch at home was Shane Vereen looked good. With two TD’s on the night, and 5 total receptions, Vereen is carving out a very nice role for himself in the ilk of Kevin Faulk or Danny Woodhead. Often called a third-down or “change of pace” back, running backs that are threat in the passing game are a somewhat recent necessity, with backs like Darren Sproles finding new levels of success at the position. The Pats rely on their screen package to keep defenses unbalanced and I predict Screen Vereen (that term is trademarked, not to be used without the expressed written consent of Prof Inc.) will build on his 47 receptions from last year, topping out this year with a higher total than Kevin Faulk’s best season of 58. Injury concerns persist for Vereen, though, having not played a complete NFL season yet. Can he stay healthy enough to be the Patriots’ best back?
We all know how Belichick hates a running back that can’t hold onto the ball. It pisses him off more than stupid questions from the press. Or sweatshirts that fit. Or Eric Mangini. Ridley’s 4 fumbles (at critical times) last year kept him permanently in Bill’s doghouse and that penchant for turnovers remains the single biggest question for the Pats this year. Will Ridley pick up where he left off in 2012 with 12 td’s and 1300+ yards from scrimmage or will his fumblitis continue to hinder him from joining the ranks of the games top runners? (Note: Ridley’s fumble in the second game versus the Eagles may not have technically been a fumble, given that his knee looked down but I don’t think Bill will see it that way…). Inevitably, this reputation as a fumbler creeps into a player’s psyche so Ridley’s battle is as much a mental one as it is physical. There are quite a few whispers about James White and they seem to be getting louder. At one point sports writer Mike Reiss even had him ranked above Ridley on the depth chart. Now while it seems unlikely that the rookie will earn himself a starting spot at the kickoff of the season, his talent and football IQ mark him as someone to watch throughout the season. The Pats’ 4th-rd pick in this year’s draft, White left Wisconsin with the 4th-highest yardage total in school history (4000+) and the 3rd-highest TD total with 45, despite being stuck behind potential-2014-breakout Montee Ball. But it’s his work ethic and desire for growth that’s gotten the attention of both his coaches and teammates. “The young players need to come out here and keep working hard, and he’s one of those guys who has been out here every day, so he’s been able to do that,” said Brady. “He’s been able to make a mistake, get the correction, come out again and not make the mistake the next day, so it’s been great.” One other important stat to note: White coughed up the ball only twice in his career at Wisconsin. “Ball security is job security,” he wisely stated in an interview earlier this year and given the previous notes about Ridley, that focus couldn’t be more relevant. Will the two-back sets of White and Vereen that we’ve been seeing in the pre-season prove a powerful weapon when the games count?
Ridley, Vereen and White, those are your big three to watch as the season plays out but what about beyond them? Fourth-year player James Develin seems locked in as the team’s fullback, seeing a high amount of activity so far during the pre-season, including quite a few looks at TE where the Patriots have obviously had recent woes. [Update: with the release of D.J. Williams, Develin is currently third on the TE depth chart]. The fullback position has fallen away from many teams over the last decade, the Patriots included, but Develin’s hard-nosed running and tough-as-nails attitude have led Brady to label him the “best fullback in the NFL”.
The fates of the three undrafted free agent running backs, the diminutive Roy Finch, special-teams specialist Brandon Bolden and hampered third-year player Jonas Gray, remain undetermined. Bolden has shown flashes of vision and elusiveness in the past, even achieving a 100-yd game in 2012’s Week 4 but he seems to be used more for his pass protection abilities.
A perennial contender, the Patriots have seemed to be a position of flux at the start of each of the last three seasons. Consistently overcoming big injuries and sticking to the Pats’ philosophy of “Team First”, it’s often difficult to predict who will make the greatest impact by season’s end. With questions about contributors in key areas (specifically RB, WR and DB), who will rise from the depths of New England’s versatile roster to be this year’s unseen star?