With Patriots training camp set to open on July 24, CBSBostonSports.com will provide a positional breakdown at each spot on offense and defense. Today's breakdown is at running back.
Position: Running back
Major Players: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, James White
On The Bubble: Brandon Bolden, James Develin
Unknowns: Jonas Gray, Roy Finch, Stephen Houston
At first glance, the running back field appears to be very crowded in New England. Yet the trio of Jonas Gray (third year, undrafted out of Notre Dame), Roy Finch (undrafted rookie out of Oklahoma) and Stephen Houston (undrafted rookie out of Indiana) likely lack the experience and ability to crack the 53-man roster. Instead, that trio will likely battle it out for a spot on the practice roster.
Beyond that, you've got the two bubble guys: Brandon Bolden and James Develin. Develin is on the bubble by nature of being a fullback. Such is life for a fullback in the NFL. Develin, at 6-foot 3 and 251 pounds, is a football player's football player, and his one-yard touchdown plunge in Houston stands as one of the most memorable moments of the 2013 season. Yet, he is a fullback, and it's always possible that the Patriots decide they don't need one.
Of the two on the bubble, Bolden may prove to be the most expendable, due to the drafting of James White. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound back out of Wisconsin was a touchdown machine in college, where he scored 45 times on the ground and three times through the air, and the Patriots used a fourth-round pick to select him in this year's draft.
White's presence on the roster is twofold. For one, he looks to have the size, skill and strength to be an NFL back. As a secondary function, White serves as a sort of long-term backup plan as Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley enter the final years of their rookie deals. If either running back proves to be too expensive for the Patriots' taste come next offseason, it's a solid safety net to have in your back pocket a young running back who had a pair of 1,000-yard seasons and three double-digit touchdown seasons in college.
Now, on the subject of Ridley and Vereen, it ought to be an interesting year.
Let's start with Ridley. The 25-year-old suffers from one of the worst conditions possible for an athlete, particularly in Boston: having a conditional statement follow every mention of your name. As in, Stevan Ridley, if he can hold onto the ball, can be a real No. 1 back in the NFL. Also, the Patriots should have a formidable running game with Stevan Ridley ... if he can hold onto the ball.
Ridley's ball control issues are well-documented, just as they were last summer. That didn't help him do much better in holding on to the rock in 2013. It got to the point where Ridley had to watch the Patriots take on the Texans while wearing street clothes on the sideline.
The story with Ridley is simple. He truly is a dynamic, powerful, explosive running back, and when he's operating on all cylinders, he's a shifty, dangerous running back ... if he can stay healthy.
With Vereen, we know that he plays a role that has always been vital during Brady's time as the starting quarterback. From Kevin Faulk to Danny Woodhead to Vereen, a pass-catching option out of the backfield has been a crucial part of the offense, and Vereen as fit the role to a tee. Though he does sort of carry a conditional statement in "if he can stay healthy," Vereen stepped up to catch 47 passes for 427 yards and three touchdowns in just eight games last season, and the numbers could have been truly eye-popping if he had been able to haul in at least three deep passes up the left sideline after he got himself wide open with a wheel route. That proved to be a bit of a bugaboo for Vereen, but he nevertheless proved to be a valuable receiver. Whenever defenses made the mistake of putting a linebacker on him, Vereen made them pay.
He's been an efficient runner, too, and in a contract year for both Vereen and Ridley, expect to see their very best this season. What happens beyond 2014 is harder to predict, but the group of running backs should have the Patriots as a top 10 rushing offense for the third straight season.
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