With Patriots training camp set to open on July 26, CBSBostonSports.com will break down the outlook for every position on the roster. Today's breakdown is on the running backs.
Position: Running Back
Major Players: Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen
On The Bubble: Joseph Addai, Spencer Larsen, Tony Fiammetta, Eric Kettani
For the first time since the 1990s, the backfield won't include Kevin Faulk. It'll be a strange adjustment for many fans, but the team has a fresh stable of backs ready to play a role in the offense.
Leading that group will be second-year player Stevan Ridley. He showed a lot last year, when he rushed for 97 yards and a touchdown against the Raiders early in the year and when he averaged 5.4 yards per carry in the final three weeks of the season. That progress, though, was cut short quickly due to a Week 17 fumble and another fumble in the team's playoff win over the Broncos, as he would touch the football zero times after that Broncos game.
There shouldn't be too much concern over the fumbles, though. He didn't fumble often in college, and two fumbles in two weeks is more likely a fluke occurrence than a sign of things to come, especially considering he had 95 touches last season.
Behind Ridley is Danny Woodhead, who's proven to be a reliable back when Tom Brady's running the no-huddle offense. While his biggest weakness can be blocking blitzing linebackers, many of whom look to be twice his size, he's averaged more than 5 yards per carry over the past two seasons while also averaging more than 10 yards on his 54 catches in that same time. He won't score a ton of touchdowns but he'll be a chain mover for an offense that looks set to be every bit as lethal as it was last year.
Beyond those two, there are questions. Shane Vereen is supposed to play a large role in the running game, and he should be able to do that. However, he has a lot to prove after getting just 15 carries last season while dealing with injuries. All the reports out of minicamp said that Vereen will be competing with Ridley in camp for the lead back job, a win-win situation for the Pats.
Veteran Joseph Addai is in the mix as well, but with younger backs looking capable of handling the load, it may take a preseason injury from one of the other backs for Addai to earn a spot on the roster.
Interestingly, Bill Belichick has three fullbacks currently on his roster. The team hasn't really used a fullback at all since Heath Evans left after the '08 season, so while they may keep one, they certainly cannot keep all of them. The team has had interest in Eric Kettani for years now, and his service to the Navy makes him an interesting player. However, Larsen's size and versatility could give him the upper hand in this roster battle.
Overall, the running back group should be improved from last year, when the Patriots finished 24th in the league in rushing yards per attempt at 4.0. However, the running game won't be the focal point of this team's offense so long as Brady is operating at his current level, so don't expect a major statistical improvement. The Pats do have some young backs who could play an important role in Josh McDaniels' passing offense, and their situation heading into camp appears to be ideal.
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