Throughout the Tom Brady era, the Patriots have featured an offense that relies heavily on pass catching running backs and, as a result, the team has always had the personnel to run that offense. Nobody played that role better than former Patriot Kevin Faulk, but more recently Danny Woodhead thrived in that role in the Patriots offense. Now, the Patriots rely on Shane Vereen in the short passing game. But while Vereen could play an important role in the Patriots offense in 2014, that’s only if he can stay healthy. Going into his fifth year in the league, the question for Vereen is not talent, he’s an extremely dynamic player, but health. Vereen played in only eight regular season games in 2013 as a result of a wrist injury he suffered in week one. His best game, by far, was the week 14 win over Cleveland in which Vereen amassed 153 receiving yards on 12 catches. There’s just no denying that when Vereen is on the field the Patriots offense is more productive. The Patriots averaged 407 yards per game with Vereen active compared to an average of 352 yards when he was not on the field. The team averaged only 26 points per game without Vereen compared to 30 points per game with him.
What this means is not necessarily that Shane Vereen is essential to the Patriots offense, but rather that the role of a pass catching running back is essential to the offense. Given Vereen’s injury history, it’s worth wondering why there’s not more focus on building redundancy at this critical position. Brandon Bolden just doesn’t have the pass catching ability that Vereen does and given that the Patriots rely so heavily on short passes and effective blocking schemes, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels need a better plan in place should Vereen go down. Let’s take a look at some free agent running backs who could play this role for the Patriots in 2014.
According to ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter, the New Orleans Saints will release running back Darren Sproles. Sproles has been extremely productive in the Saints offense over the past three years and his release is as classic a cap casualty as they come. Sproles is exactly the kind of running back that thrives in the Patriots offense. In New Orleans, he was used much more as a pass catcher than as a traditional halfback. In 2013, Sproles had 71 receptions for 604 yards. In his three years with the Saints, Sproles had 16 receiving touchdowns. His quickness allows him to excel at catching the ball on outlet routes and he also has the speed to get downfield. Sproles wouldn’t come cheap, however, and if the Patriots were serious about pursuing him it would likely be at the expense of bringing LeGarrette Blount back.
Darren McFadden is a cheaper, riskier option to build some redundancy at the pass catching running back position. McFadden has never lived up to his potential and is the definition of injury prone. But in Oakland, McFadden was the primary running back and was expected to play every down. In New England, McFadden would simply be a part of the rotation and perhaps the lighter load would benefit him. McFadden has real pass catching ability and, if healthy, could succeed in the Patriots offense. In six years in Oakland, McFadden caught 175 passes for nearly 1,600 yards. The Patriots might be able to lure McFadden in with a low-risk contract as it’s not likely that a team will be willing to make a serious investment in him given his injury history.
Others: Ahmad Bradshaw, Ronnie Brown
The Patriots could try to bring in an aging veteran to add redundancy at the position. Ahmad Bradshaw is coming off neck surgery and only played in three games in 2013, but has expressed a desire to continue playing and has a history of being a reliable pass catcher. Ronnie Brown may be a less risky option, though. In 2012, Brown caught 49 passes in San Diego’s offense, but was the odd man out in 2013 with the arrival of Danny Woodhead. The Patriots certainly wouldn’t have to break the bank to bring Brown on board and doing so could provide the security blanket the team needs should Vereen suffer another injury in 2014.