For years now, ever since their near perfect season in 2007, the Patriots have been known for their dominant aerial attack. Brady has put up astounding numbers over this time, including a 50 touchdown season, over 5000 passing yards in a season and a few 100+ QB rating seasons. Despite all these amazing statistics, the Patriots have not able to win the big one since the offense became the focal point of the team. This brings me to the running backs on the team. During the Patriots run of Super Bowls in the early to mid 2000s, the running game was key to what the Patriots wanted to do – control the ball and not make mistakes. Now with the passing game damaged with Welker leaving, Lloyd cut, Gronkowski injured and Hernandez off to jail, it is imperative that the backfield continue to make strides like they have been doing the past two years. Here are my predictions for this year’s Patriots backfield.
1. Stevan Ridley- This past season was a true breakout year for the former 3rd round pick out of LSU. In his first full season as the feature back on the team, Ridley proceeded to rush for 1263 yards, and 12 touchdowns showing the Patriots fan base just how nice it was to have an explosive running game once again, something that had been lacking since the Corey Dillon years. Not only did he put up those fancy numbers, but he was a true workhorse for the Patriots. 290 carries, only 10 off of a 300 carry season is huge, proving that Ridley is capable of shouldering the load. Hopefully Ridley won’t have to carry the ball that many times this year, so that he can be preserved for years to come, and hopefully he won’t burn out quickly like so many star running backs before him. However it is nice knowing that he can be trusted to produce for an entire season at that rate. Fumbling is still a bit of a problem, as he lost the ball four times over the course of the season, and it seemed to always be in close situations, late in the game, making them even more costly, but he is still very young, and his case of fumblitis can still be beaten out of him with enough attention. Overall, I expect more great things from Ridley this year, while he may not have the same volume of touches like last year, he should still be very effective, and I expect a second straight 1000+ yard season for the 3rd year back.
2. Shane Vereen- Shane Vereen is such an intriguing player to watch. The former California Golden Bear showed some excellent flashes last year when used as a receiver out of the backfield, including that scintillating catch and run 83 yard TD against the Jets, and his great over the shoulder grab on a 33 yard TD pass up the sideline in the playoffs against the Texans this year as well. He has some serious explosive play making abilities, something the Patriots have been desperate for. He is a nightmare matchup for defenses, as he can run the ball just as well as he catches it. I hope to see him get a few more touches at running back this year, and help ease the load for Ridley as a change of speed back the Patriots can throw at a defense whenever they want to. With offensive weapons at a premium this year for the Patriots, look for Vereen to become a much bigger part of the offense, and maybe become one of Brady’s favorite targets.
3. Brandon Bolden- Punishing. One word describes Brandon Bolden’s running style. He punishes defenders. While he may not be the most athletic, fast or elusive back on the team, his pure power, and ability to run downfield is something the Patriots can hopefully take advantage of this year, so long as he’s healthy and out of trouble. The undrafted rookie out of Missouri had a great start to his season when in week 4 he showed glimpses of what he was capable of, running for 137 yards and touchdown in a spanking of the Bills. But after that he was forced to serve a four game suspension for a drug violation, and lost his spot in the backfield to Shane Vereen. Despite that setback, I think Bolden can still be a valuable piece to this Patriots offense. The power is fantastic, he can milk the clock when needed and perhaps even catch something out of the backfield if necessary. He’s not the most well-rounded weapon, but he could be useful in a pinch, or if one of Vereen or Ridley happen to suffer and injury, I would be confident that Bolden can fill in nicely.
4. Leon Washington I have Washington here in my last spot because he’s the wildcard at this position. Washington was brought in to be a return ace, and provide the special teams with a huge boost, but he can also provide on offense as well. While he’s not a particularly big back, he’s explosive. He won’t see a lot of time with Brady in the backfield, but can provide some solid catching and even have a few carries, and fit into the Danny Woodhead mould.
The first two slots in Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen were pretty easy, and I think Bolden was also easy to slide in at the #3 slot, but I was actually quite torn at #4. While I very much like Washington and what he’s going to bring to the special teams, I kind of wanted to put LeGarrette Blount in that spot. I love Blount’s power, and he’s also a proven commodity as he had a 1000 yard season as an undrafted free agent in Tampa Bay a few years ago, before Doug Martin came and took over. I’m happy with Washington where he is, but wouldn’t mind seeing Blount play a few games in the preseason, just to see what kind of shape he’s in and if brings anything special, that Bolden cannot.
With all that being said, I’m really looking forward to what this young group of backs can bring to the Patriots this season. Like I said, the passing offense is a bit devastated, and while Brady should be able to use his magic to work something out of nothing, the running game will be an even bigger factor than it was last year. Part of the reason the Pats were so good when Hernandez and Gronk went down throughout the course of the season is that the running game picked up the slack and kept defenses honest. Is there anyone else you’d like to see make this list? Should the Patriots bring some extra proven bodies to see if they can get anything to add to this impressive collection of talent? Put some ideas down in the comment section.
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