By TJ Horgan
The New England Patriots’ depth chart consistently means nothing. Based on Bill Belichick’s decisions, it seems as though he doesn’t believe a depth chart exists. Aside from Tom Brady, there is parity among all Patriots’ offensive weapons, in the eyes of Belichick. For this reason, analyzing and predicting individual performance among Patriots’ players has evolved into a formidable task.
From 2006-2011, a Patriots’ running back has breached 200 carries only once (BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2010 with 229). Then, without much warning, Stevan Ridley amassed 290 carries in 2012. That was tied for sixth most in the NFL. Last year, Stevan Ridley led the Pats’ backfield with 197, compared to LeGarrette Blount’s 182. However, after week 11, Ridley averaged a mere 9.4 carries per game, and if end-of-season trends are at all useful in predicting a player’s following year beginning, then 2014 is looking quite ominous for Stevan Ridley.
The chance of Ridley being cut is exceedingly low, so for fantasy purposes, we will assume Ridley stays in New England’s backfield, and his workload will almost wholly depend on how well he secures the ball. Belichick was not hesitant to bench Ridley in 2013 as punishment for fumbling. Ridley’s potential is a high-end RB2, as there is the possibility he repeats his 2012 workhorse season. However, I have Ridley as my 30th ranked running back, because of Belichick’s whimsical tendencies with running back play, and his missing three games in 2013 due to nagging injuries.
LeGarrette Blount is gone, so the running back who will inherit his role as the power back in New England’s offense is still up for grabs. Brandon Bolden had three rushing touchdowns in 2013, despite only managing 55 carries, and at 5’11, 220 pounds, his name will be in the pot for goal-line carries. Additionally, Bolden has maintained a 4.9 yard per carry rate since his rookie year in 2012. Bolden should not be drafted in a 10-team league, but if Ridley comes down with an injury or an aforementioned case of the fumbles, Bolden will be a name to watch.
Shane Vereen is fairly undeniably the best fantasy option in the Patriots’ backfield. In the 2013 games where he touched the ball at least once (8 games, due to injuries) Vereen averaged 13 touches per game, with an average 95 total yards per game, and a touchdown every other game. Yes, most of Vereen’s value is as a receiving back, but the Patriots know he is a weapon who can, and has, changed games with one reception. Do not be hesitant to draft Vereen due to his receiving less than 10 carries per game, as his 95 combined yards per game in 2013 should not be overlooked. I have Vereen ranked as my 25th running back, which means he should be a fantasy team’s third running back. He is not ranked better due to Brady’s plethora of options in terms of receivers. However, he is the only reliable receiver in the Patriots’ backfield, and with the upside of over 100 yards per game, I’m not sleeping on Vereen.
Lastly, a name that has not-so-sneakily arose in New England training camp is James White, the Patriots’ fourth-round draft pick out of Wisconsin. White is an interesting element here, that, yet again, throws a whole lot of confusion into the New England’s backfield situation. Bill Belichick even told NFL.com that White “Has the ability to compete on all three downs.” As was evident in his college days, White can lower his shoulder and crash against a defender for an extra two yards, or he can turn on the jets and throw one of his lethal juke moves on a defender. In college, White’s juke move was one of the most impressive and effective moves among running backs. However, a move so reliant on the mistake of the defender may not translate as well to the NFL, where defenders are much more seasoned in not biting on moves. As of now, White should not be drafted in a standard 10-team league. However, if Vereen or Ridley are injured in the preseason, White will immediately become draftable, as his abilities are suited to fit either role.
All in all, the Patriots’ backfield draftability is Vereen (RB3-4), Ridley (RB4-5), White (Only if Vereen or Ridley is injured), and then Bolden (if he is named a starter in wake of an injury).