The New England Patriots front office is hard at work as they prepare to move on from their Super Bowl Championship 2014 season which culminated in a dramatic 28-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks and onto the hard decisions of the offseason. Their extended post-season run created an abbreviated offseason causing the front office to cram a lot of decisions into the next few weeks to get to work on their offseason roster building.
The regional draft combines have already started and this week the showcase is the national NFL combine starting on February 17. Internal free agents take priority as New England has a deadline of March 2 as far as applying the franchise tag to players who cannot work out a long-term deal and whom the team desires to keep off the free agent market.
Free agency begins on March 7 with teams able to negotiate with unrestricted free agents and on March 10 at 4PM the league year begins and the players are officially able to sign with new teams. The Patriots (and other 31 NFL teams) need to be under the salary cap by the start of the league year, so there is just a few weeks to get their house in order.
This caps a look at the internal free agents and cap numbers of salaried veterans in New England where tough decisions need to be made as far as roster management. Kicking off the six-part series was kicker Stephen Gostkowski, and part two looked at a trio of veteran contributors in wide receiver Danny Amendola, inside linebacker Jerod Mayo, and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. Part three got to the Pro Bowl secondary players looking at cornerback Darrelle Revis and free safety Devin McCourty. Part four addressed the mid-season acquisitions from 2014 in defensive tackle Alan Branch and linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas. Part five switched focus to the offensive line and potential free agent guard Dan Connolly and the big cap number of left tackle Nate Solder. Finally, part six concludes the series with a look at the running backs from the 2011 NFL Draft as they hit free agency with Super Bowl star Shane Vereen and the injured Stevan Ridley.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY SIX OF SIX: Stevan Ridley & Shane Vereen
Oct 12, 2014; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley (22) punches the ground after being injured during the 2nd half against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Patriots beat the Bills 37-22. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
At one point during the offseason, the Patriots did not have a running back under contract in 2015. However, the team drafted James White in the fourth round of the NFL Draft and later extended Brandon Bolden and re-signed LeGarrette Blount to a two-year deal after his release from Pittsburgh during the season. The team has Jonas Gray under contract for 2015 as well giving the team a trio to build around.
When the Patriots last went to the Super Bowl in 2011 they featured BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead as their primary and third-down running backs. Rookies Shane Vereen (26 snaps) and Stevan Ridley (192 snaps) barely found the field as rookies. In 2012 Ridley broke through as the primary running back and in 2013 Vereen replaced Woodhead as the third-down running back in the offense.
Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots running back Shane Vereen (34) makes a one handed catch in Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
With Ridley injuring his ACL and MCL in a horrific knee injury in week six against the Bills, the Patriots seemingly have moved on from the big and quick Ridley with Gray and Blount in place. Ridley’s style fit the offense well and he and Blount worked well as a tandem in 2013. However, Ridley may be limited this offseason as far as free agent offers as he will have to show he is healthy and ready to contribute in 2015.
Vereen is coming off his most productive run in New England as he stayed healthy throughout 2014 and had big games in the Super Bowl and against Baltimore in the Divisional Playoff round. With his 11 receptions against Seattle and 58 yards after contact out of the backfield as a receiver Vereen stepped up on a national stage–always good for a pending free agent.
Last year Ridley carried a $939,750 cap number while Vereen had a $1.1 million cap number in 2014. Both running backs were in the last year of their rookie deals. Vereen was a second round draft pick and Ridley was a third round pick and New England got good value from the duo of running backs. Ridley did have some fumbling issues that limited his production and Vereen had injury issues which kept him from making more of an impact as a Patriot.
While Ridley may be forced to take a one-year contract to prove his health and re-establish his value, he is more likely to look for an opportunity where he can establish himself in the role of a number one running back. He may come back to New England on a one-year incentive laden deal, but he will have to have struck out in free agency first. Remember, in the first five weeks of the season Ridley had two games where he had rushed for over 100 yards before injuring his knee.
For Vereen, the Patriots may simply not be in a position to match what he will get on the open market. More and more teams are looking for a receiving threat out of the backfield and Vereen fits the bill perfectly. With the Super Bowl performance fresh in their minds, Vereen is likely to garner a lot of attention this offseason. Just 25 years old, Vereen has sure hands, runs routes well, can contribute on draws and short screens, and has shown he can run with vision and power after he catches the ball.
With the drafting of James White in the 2014 NFL Draft and the signing of Blount, the Patriots may be content with their running backs and just draft or sign a back for depth. However, White played just three games and had nine carries in what was essentially a redshirt season for him. White will have to contribute immediately next season or the Patriots could be forced to look to free agency to replace Vereen.
While it is possible that Vereen and Ridley return in 2015 to New England it is most likely that both will be in a new location. Vereen should have a number of suitors lining up to make him offers as free agency starts. Ridley may have a weaker market, but with the dearth of quality running backs someone will give him the chance to be the lead back in 2015. New England will likely be forced to have their young backs step up and add depth through the draft and free agency in order to shore up the running back position.