The New England Patriots have a surplus of goods at the running back position with feature back Stevan Ridley, key backup Danny Woodhead, rising backup Shane Vereen, promising future second-year player Brandon Bolden, and the incoming speed-demon Jeff Demps. The depth at the running back position makes it difficult to get a gauge on whether or not the New England Patriots should re-sign Danny Woodhead, who is an unrestricted free agent.
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Based on what I’ve been reading from the beat writers early on, it sounds like the Patriots are more than willing to get a deal done with Woodhead. Based on what I’ve been hearing from the fans, not everybody thinks the Pats should re-sign Woodhead. In this piece, I will take a look at both sides of the coin by making cases for and against Woodhead sticking around with the Pats. Warning: the arguments may be a little bit exaggerated for both sides.
Why wouldn’t you want Woodhead back? He is a leader in the locker room, a fan favorite, played the second highest percentage of snaps at the running back position, and he fits the Patriots hurry-up offense better than any back on this team. Woodhead is the veteran of this group (that plays in the leadership role), and, to further compound the intangibles, he is also the kind of player everyone (including Bill Belichick) loves.
Woodhead is arguably the best third-down running back in the league, and he is consistently among the leaders in the advanced statistics WPA, EPA, and success rate. The leadership in the first two stats come as somewhat of a surprise, because those are counting stats and Woodhead isn’t a No. 1 back. However, Woodhead moves the WPA meter significantly by coming up big in clutch situations, and he has made some huge plays throughout the season for the Patriots on third downs as both a receiver and rusher.
It’s that ability that makes Woodhead one of the best all-purpose backs around, but it goes a step further than that. While it is true that Shane Vereen is also great as a receiver and is a quality rusher as well, Vereen isn’t as consistent as Woodhead and, maybe more importantly, isn’t nearly as good in pass protection as Woodhead. There is a significant drop-off between both backs in that regard, and it’s why Woodhead has more than just an “edge” over Vereen as third-down back.
Woodhead is better than Vereen in every facet of the game right now, and he is more consistent. Vereen has more upside and big-play ability, but we all know there is more to this game than that. At the running back position, pass blocking is an underrated quality and Woodhead also draws the advantage in that regard.
Fast fact: Woodhead was the highest graded rusher by PFF– even higher than Stevan Ridley.
Football is a business and, as such, backup players who are hitting free agency at a position with depth are rarely re-signed. It would be great to have Danny Woodhead back, but only if the price is right. The Pats simply don’t have the cap space with key players such as Sebastian Vollmer, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, and Aqib Talib set to hit free agency. Three of those guys will likely demand large contracts or the franchise tag, and there is already a lot of money tied up among the offensive triumvirate of Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez.
Not only is Woodhead an “excess” player, but there is already a player in Shane Vereen who can broadly do what Woodhead does. Vereen is an excellent pass-catcher, he is just as fast and explosive as Woodhead, and he is also younger and a better big-play guy with more upside. Woodhead is no slouch with speed and explosiveness either, but we saw in the game against the Houston Texans that there is no drop-off between Woodhead and Vereen.
Add in the fact that Jeff Demps is coming in as an even faster option out of the backfield, and there are two potential replacements for Woodhead. While the “For” guy above (yes, I know I am talking about myself) would say that Demps has more of a chance at replacing Vereen than Vereen does Woodhead, there is no need to sign Woodhead when you have two of these explosive backs. The Pats don’t need to spend more money than they need to in order to sign a player who, quite frankly, will most likely be overvalued in the offseason. After all, Woodhead is just a backup.
The Patriots don’t have endless cap space (most great teams don’t), and they have quite a few key players hitting free agency. Woodhead is a key backup and has importance in this offense, so he’s a little bit more than a “luxury” player. However, with the depth at the position and the emergence of Vereen, the Pats can’t afford to overpay Woodhead. They have to sign him if the price is right, but they should walk away from the table if Woodhead wants too much money. I love Woodhead and really want him to stay, but the ball is in his court. He controls the asking price, and he could very well get more money and a bigger role with a team that needs an explosive RB and has fallen in love with him (like so many Pats fans have).
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.