The Answer Is Clear In The Patriots Backfield
Mike Loyko, Rosterwatch Director of Pro Scouting
One of the biggest fantasy question marks leading up to drafts in 2012 is what to make of the Patriots running back position. Should the position as a whole be avoided? Will someone emerge from the mix and breakout? How will the carries be split and who will get the most touches? It’s never easy to predict what the Patriots are going to do, but based on the first week of training camp a trend is starting to develop that’s making me think twice about one particular Patriots back.
To predict the future, you first must understand the past.
In 2011, the Patriots carried five running backs throughout the season, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, Kevin Faulk and two rookies; 2nd round draft pick Shane Vereen and 3rd round pick Stevan Ridley.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who had been the unquestioned lead back in 2010 and 2011, is gone. Kevin Faulk who has been a longtime staple in the Patriots backfield is currently unemployed. Only Ridley, Vereen and Woodhead remain from last year’s roster. These five RBs combined to carry the ball 377 times during the regular season last year, with Green-Ellis getting the majority of the carries with 181.
The only addition the Patriots made at the running back position in the offseason was UDFA Brandon Bolden from Ole Miss. Bolden has looked very good in camp, but he has a long way to go before making an impact in an NFL game. The Patriots also added two fullbacks to the roster, but they won’t receive more than a handful of carries. Assuming that the Patriots stick to the same run-pass split as they did last year (and why wouldn’t they with Tom Brady at QB), there are 400 carries to be split between three running backs; Ridley, Vereen and Woodhead.
Just for reference, here are their stats from last season:
Stevan Ridley: 87 attempts – 441 yards – 1 TD with a 5.1 YPC average, added 3 catches for 13 yards
Shane Vereen: 15 attempts – 57 yards – 1 TD with a 3.7 YPC average. Vereen did not record a reception.
Danny Woodhead: 77 attempts – 351 yards – 4.6 YPC average, added 18 catches for 157 yards.
Let’s start with Danny Woodhead. Woodhead saw the majority of his playing time come on 3rd down and in no-huddle situations last season. The Patriots use him as a change of pace back and love to run draws with Woodhead out of the shotgun. Woodhead is also a very good pass receiver and can pile up yards in the passing game, especially with how much “2 minute offense” the Pats run.
Last season on his 77 carries Woodhead posted a very respectable 4.6 yards per carry average. However, if you look closer at those carries; his longest run of the season was only 12 yards.
This is a red flag for me. It tells me that he has trouble breaking tackles and goes down on first contact often. Woodhead is not a guy who is going to break off long runs and “big plays” It’s a long shot he ever has a 100 yard game, due to the lack of carries and the situations he plays in. With that said you can probably pencil Woodhead in for right around 100 carries, based off of last year’s total and a slight increase in workload. As a fantasy owner, he is someone to keep in mind for your bench, especially in PPR and return yardage leagues.
Even though the Patriots #1 RB job is wide open, Woodhead is unlikely to become the guy. He is limited by his size and stature. He is also, the only RB on the roster with a defined role and that role is important to what the Patriots like to do.
Subtracting Woodhead’s workload, 300 carries remain. Last season Ridley and Vereen combined for only 103 rushing attempts, so both are in line for large increases in touches.
Who out of the two who is more likely to become the #1 RB on the roster? Well, based on the first week of practice and a closer look at last year’s numbers the answer is clear. Stevan Ridley.
Through the first four training camp practices Stevan Ridley has consistently run with the first team offense and has looked great doing it, while Vereen has been mixed in with the 2 nd and 3rd team offenses.
At 5’11″ 220 pounds, Ridley has the prototypical size for a lead back, but also possesses the quickness and elusiveness to get through the hole and break tackles. While Vereen has better “on paper” measurables, Ridley looks like the more explosive player, and more capable of making big plays.
What is considered a big play for a running back? Well, by definition a big play would be considered any running play which gained 20 yards or more from scrimmage.
Going back to last year one more time, it’s an area the Patriots running game struggled all with year. In fact, they only had 5 carries over 20 yards out of their 377 rushing attempts from scrimmage a 1.3% average. What’s important about that stat? All five of those 20+ yard carries belong to Stevan Ridley.
Even though he only rushed the ball 87 times he accounted for every big play the Patriots running backs produced last year. A big play 5.7% of the time, or once a game based on a 20 carry game.
Aside from carrying the ball, Ridley’s role in the passing game should increase as well. Ridley has shown natural and reliable hands thus far, making him an even better candidate for the lead back role. With Josh McDaniels back as offensive coordinator look for the Patriots to utilize the screen pass, swing pass and bubble screen passes, which should add to Ridley’s chances at big time production.
If Ridley’s yards/carry average last year is extrapolated over 225 carries, it would amount to 1147 yards. That’s not entirely realistic, so let’s say that Ridley’s yards/carry average drops .5 yards per game to 4.5. If Ridley averages 4.5 yards per carry on 225 carries he would still rush for 1012 yards. Based on his performance to date that should be doable and that’s not even counting receptions.
While the Patriots aren’t known for being a run heavy team, they still produce a lot of goal line rushing attempts. With such an explosive offense, the Patriots find themselves in the red zone more than just about any team in the NFL. Let’s not forget that over the course of the past two seasons Green-Ellis was able to score 24 rushing touchdowns. The majority of those touchdowns came from inside the ten yard line.
With Green-Ellis gone to Cincinnati so are those touchdowns. Someone will get those touches. The overwhelming favorite to do so is Ridley. The goal line carries alone may make him a viable fantasy option, but when taken into account with all the other opportunities available the answer is clear.
That’s not to say Shane Vereen doesn’t have any value, he does. The thing with Vereen is that he is a relative unknown. While Ridley was healthy most of the season and played in all 16 games starting two, Vereen was inactive. In fact, Vereen only received carries in two games last season; vs. Philadelphia and vs. Kansas City, both in garbage time of a blowout.
All we can go on is what we see in camp and right now Ridley is ahead. What can Vereen do well? He has shown really good hands, has been used on a lot of screen pass situations and has even more home run hitting ability than Ridley. If given the opportunity Vereen may create even more “big plays” than Ridley.
In conclusion, when breaking it down Stevan Ridley is the clear cut choice when it comes to a Patriots running back to target. As a mid-round RB2 option Ridley could be the steal of the draft. One thing is certain, there is an opportunity presenting itself, will Stevan Ridley reach out and grab it? Will you?
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