State of the Position: Running Backs

It’s officially the year of the youth movement at running back for the New England Patriots.

For a position that’s usually featured reliable but aging veterans, this season should be a breath of fresh air.

Second-year man Stevan Ridley appears poised to be the lead back now that BenJarvus Green-Ellis is in Cincinnati.

Although “The Law Firm” never put the ball on the ground, he also lacked dynamic playmaking ability at a premium spot, making him expendable now that the Pats have re-stocked the position over the past year.

In fact, Bill Belichick devoted two high draft picks on running backs in 2011, selecting Shane Vereen with the 56th overall pick before taking Ridley at 73.

Surprisingly, Ridley has grasped the starting spot, displaying a burst uncharacteristic of a player who many draft experts pegged as a possible fullback.

Because of his size (5’11”, 220 pounds) and slashing style, Ridley offers a more dynamic skill set than his predecessor and could quickly develop into a quality NFL starter.

While Ridley quickly asserted himself as a NFL-caliber starter, Shane Vereen’s struggled to make an impact despite his draft pedigree.

The former second-round pick basically redshirted his rookie season after dealing with a nagging hamstring injury, and although he looked decent in preseason action, he’s once again dealing with another injury.

For a player who was heralded for his speed and cutting ability, I didn’t see elite quickness from Vereen in the preseason.

Considering his draft status, it would be a disappointment if he didn’t at least contribute on third downs, but at this point the jury is still out on the former California Golden Bear.

For a team that once carried Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk on the same roster, it’s funny to think Danny Woodhead is the veteran of this year’s group.

The diminutive fifth-year pro provided a sparkplug in 2010 before fizzling out a bit in 2011.

Woodhead makes his money as a pass-catching back who utilizes his elite quickness to make defenders miss. However, his size limitations and lack of power negate his ability to be a true contributor between the tackles.

With Green-Ellis gone, the Patriots may have found his replacement in fellow Ole Miss alum Brandon Bolden.

Checking in at 5’11”, 220 pounds, Bolden is a one-cut runner who exhibits good power through contact. He struggled mightily as a punt returner and probably won’t be used in the passing game. 

It’ll be interesting to see whether he garners any goal-line snaps as his size could be an asset.

Unfortunately for Patriots fans seeking an Olympic performance, running back Jeff Demps won’t be on the field till 2013. The team placed him on injured reserve after suffering a bone bruise.

The former Florida Gator and Olympic track star possesses game-changing speed and could be the team’s starting kick returner in 2013.

Overall, the running back group certainly isn’t elite, but there’spromise. Ridley should be an above-average starter and should finish with over 800 yards and eight scores.

Hopefully Vereen gets healthy before he gets lost in the mix, otherwise he’ll be squarely on the roster bubble next season.

With an offense predicated on the tight ends and Wes Welker, the running game just needs to be efficient when called upon, and with Ridley leading the way, it should be solid enough in 2012. 

State of the Position: Running Backs

State of the Position is a new weekly Foxboro Blog feature that will examine the post-draft status of each position and take a look at what needs still need to be filled before the season opens up.

Today we will examine the running backs.

For the first time since the days of Corey Dillon, the Patriots featured a 1000-yard rusher.

While he doesn’t possess top-end speed, elite agility or size, former undrafted free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis does one thing well: run hard.

The 5-foot-11, 215-pounder rushed for a team-high 1,008 yards and 13 touchdowns in his first season as a starter.

What’s most impressive about “The Law Firm” is his ability to make positive plays (something Laurence Maroney failed at).

BJGE averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry in all but four games, highlighted by a 17-carry, 112-yard performance against Minnesota in Week 10.

Because of his lack of dynamic athleticism, he isn’t an asset on passing downs, but that’s where Danny Woodhead comes in.

The tiny Division II Heisman winner was cut by the Jets, and in true Belichick fashion, he made them pay.

Woodhead rushed for 547 yards on 97 carries (6.7 average) and five touchdowns while catching 34 passes for 379 yards.

His quickness and ability to pick up yards after contact make him invaluable in the running back rotation.

With Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk all slated for free agency, the Patriots decided to address the running back position early in the 2011 draft.

Their second-round pick, Shane Vereen, is a player to watch this season.

The former California Golden Bear is like Kevin Faulk with better running ability.

If he impresses in training camp (assuming the lockout is over in time), Vereen could take away snaps from BJGE since he offers more in the passing game.

The final back to round out the stable is third-rounder Stevan Ridley.

While I’m not a big fan of his draft position, Ridley is a grinder who could fill a BJGE-type role as a late-game finisher.

He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in the SEC last year, and is a definite goal-line and short-yardage option.

Overall, this group has a lot of versatility and each player has a definite role in the offense. If the two rookies can contribute early, this group should definitely be set up well for both the present and the future.

State of the Position Grade: B+