Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots running back Shane Vereen (34) celebrates after defeating the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots enter the off-season with a number of internal moves to make to get their salary cap in order before they can begin spending on free agents when the 2015 NFL season starts on March 10. While the majority of the money is tied-up in cornerback Darrelle Revis and his “placeholder” $25 million cap charge in 2015 (salary data from OvertheCap.com), once he is extended or released the team should be able to position themselves to be active in free agency to fill holes in the roster.
The NFL Draft follows in May, but by then the Patriots will be well into the roster building. Last season New England had a strong foray into free agency bringing in wide receiver Brandon LaFell (74 receptions for 953 yards and 7 touchdowns), re-signing wide receiver Julian Edelman (92 receptions for 972 yards and 4 touchdowns), and re-signing valuable blocking tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and guard/center Ryan Wendell on offense. On defense Revis was the the crown jewel but cornerback Brandon Browner and safety Patrick Chung brought hard-hitting swagger to the defense.
This season the Patriots will need another strong off-season again to keep the team in contention to defend their 2014 Super Bowl championship. Like all teams that win a Super Bowl their free agents tend to get extra attention from the other 31 teams in the NFL. Looking at free agency needs and the 2015 NFL Draft, this series first addressed the offense by looking at the most important position in part one: quarterback. Part two of the off-season outlook stays with the offense and delves into the running back position.
Under contract: LeGarrette Blount ($1,000,000 cap number), Jonas Gray ($510,000 cap number), Brandon Bolden ($1,035,000 cap number), Tyler Gaffney ($435,000 cap number), and James White ($609,272 cap number).
Oct 5, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley (22) rushes against the Cincinnati Bengals during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots entered 2014 with 2011 NFL Draft picks Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen as their primary running backs. Ridley was felled by a knee injury in week six at Buffalo. To that point of the season Ridley was the leading rusher for New England with 340 yards and two touchdowns with two games topping 100 yards (Minnesota in week two and Cincinnati in week five).
The key stat for Ridley in 2014 was zero fumbles as after a number of key fumbles marred his career in New England. Ridley had broke out in 2012 after he rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was in Bill Belichick’s doghouse in 2013 splitting time with LeGarrette Blount. Ridley is an unrestricted free agent.
Vereen is an unrestricted free agent and is coming off a strong performance on a national stage. In the Super Bowl Vereen had 13 yards rushing, but nabbed 11 passes for 64 yards and some nifty moves in the open field to convert first downs. Vereen served as an understudy to Danny Woodhead in 2011 and 2012 before getting his shot as the primary third-down/receiving back in 2013.
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
Vereen topped 100 yards on the ground in week one of 2013 versus Buffalo and had 7 receptions. Unfortunately, a wrist injury caused him to miss the next 8 games. He had an impressive return in 2013 and finished with 47 receptions for 427 in just 8 games. Vereen rushed for 291 yards in 2014 playing in all 16 regular season games and had 52 receptions for 447 yards.
Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (29) is tackled by Seattle Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas (29) in the first quarter in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
LeGarrette Blount revived his NFL career in 2013 in New England after falling out of favor in Tampa Bay. After rushing for 772 yards in the regular season, Blount signed with Pittsburgh as an unrestricted free agent with little resistance from the Patriots. After a mid-season release put him back on the market and he landed in New England. Blount rushed for 281 yards in NEw England in five games and added another 189 in the postseason.
Jonas Gray came to New England on a futures contract after the 2013 season after bouncing around the practice squads in Miami and Baltimore. After a breakout performance in preseason game two against Philadelphia where he rushed for 98 yards, Gray found his way to the practice squad and was activated after Ridley was lost for the season. After getting his feet wet, he exploded in week 11 with 201 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns against Indianapolis. Gray was tardy to a practice the next week and soon was behind Blount on the depth chart. When called upon, however, Gray ran hard and low to the ground and contributed to the New England ground game.
Jan 18, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates with running back Brandon Bolden (38) after throwing a touchdown pass during the third quarter against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Brandon Bolden was extended during the 2014 season and was a major contributor to the special teams unit. He did start two games and has experience in the offense and was the primary fill-in as a third-down back behind Vereen the past two years. Fullback James Develin is an exclusive rights free agent and is a battering ram first and foremost. However, he occasionally flashes soft hands in the receiving game and strong running in jumbo packages.
Tyler Gaffney is a complete unknown as he was a sixth-round draft pick by Carolina who suffered a knee injury and missed all of 2014. The Patriots nabbed him from waivers and snuck him onto their injured reserve for 2014. Gaffney was impressive in college at Stanford as he has the size and quickness to be an NFL running back. After suffering a torn meniscus he will have to be healthy first and foremost. At Stanford his running style and size make him look like a quick and strong back who could fit in New England’s one-cut rushing attack like Blount and Gray.
Oct 26, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) hands the ball off to running back James White (28) during the second half of New England
James White is the wildcard in the New England backfield. The rookie was picked in the fourth round but played in just three games. White struggled in the preseason rushing 29 times for 80 yards and just a 2.8 yards per carry average. White only played in the week four blowout loss to Kansas City, the week eight blowout win over Chicago, and against Buffalo in the meaningless regular season finale. White is expected to be a third down/receiving back in the New England offense and could be expected to fill the shoes of Vereen if he leaves in free agency.
Need (Low, Mid, High): Mid
Free Agent Activity:
Oct 19, 2014; Landover, MD, USA; Tennessee Titans running back Leon Washington (29) stands on the field prior to the Titans
The Patriots have resisted veteran free agent running backs during the Bill Belichick era. If there is a back they want, it is usually via trade (Corey Dillon and Blount) although Sammy Morris and Antowain Smith were effective veteran running backs. The Leon Washington experiment of 2013 was an unmitigated disaster as he barely got on the field. Stevan Ridley could return on a one-year “prove it” deal if there is no other interest on the market.
Vereen is the most important free agent on offense in New England. Unfortunately, his stock is soaring and the Patriots are simply not going to get in a bidding war and pay premium prices for a part-time running back. Vereen will be very attractive to a number of teams with a lot of cap space as a security blanket for a young running back.
The Patriots likely missed a prime opportunity to extend Vereen in 2013 when they still had leverage and cap space. An intriguing back on the free agent market who could come to New England bringing value could be C.J. Spiller. The former Bills back is likely out of Buffalo and could take a one-year deal to re-establish his value again. They will miss Vereen and look to the draft to replace him.
Feb 21, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Melvin Gordon runs with the ball in a drill during the 2015 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
The question is not “if” the Patriots are picking a running back, it is more of a question of “when”. Whether New England strikes at the end of the first round depends on if they decide they want to roll the dice in the first round on one of the top three running backs Melvin Gordon III, Todd Gurley, or Tevin Coleman. Remember, New England drafted Vereen in the second round and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah, Miami’s Duke Johnson or small school Northern Iowa’s David Johnson are options. All three are currently second or third-round picks (although a lot can change by May). The Patriots have a need to replace Vereen (or find a back-up for him if he surprisingly returns) and this draft is an excellent opportunity to get a quality player for the next four years.