The New England Patriots enter 2013 with their most diverse group of running backs in years. Each of them could conceivably carve out their own niche in the offense, although after a breakout season in 2012, Stevan Ridley should have no trouble fending off competition for the lead role.
Gone are the pint-sized Danny Woodhead and lightning-quick Jeff Demps. In their place, the Patriots added the troubled-yet-talented LeGarrette Blount, Pro-Bowl return man Leon Washington and rookie free agent Akeem Shavers.
Right now we don’t know much about the depth chart behind Ridley, and predicting how Bill Belichick will use his roster is folly. That’s never stopped us from speculating before though, so why stop now?
I’ve broken down the Patriots depth chart according to what sort of role each running back will play and how heavy a load each of them will carry. Again, sorting through Belichick’s roster is far from an exact science, but based on what we know so far, we can make a few credible, well-founded assumptions, and here they are.
Spoiler alert: Nowhere in this article will you find the phrases "stable," "workhorse," "thoroughbred" or any other cliché pertaining to the equine species.
The Sherpa- Stevan Ridley
Born in the Himalayas and genetically predisposed to higher altitudes, the Sherpa are invaluable to the thousands of tourists and climbers who attempt to summit Mt. Everest. They don’t lead expeditions, but they help keep their parties on course and carry heavy burdens along the way to make things easier for the rest of the group.
Like the Sherpa, Ridley doesn’t lead the Patriots offense—that distinction belongs to Tom Brady—but he carries a hefty load, and his presence in the ground game allows Brady to run the offense with precision and confidence, knowing he has a reliable beast of burden to fall back on when times get tough.
Ridley may never climb Everest, but he’s at the summit of New England’s depth chart and for good reason. After rushing for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, he appears poised for another step on his uphill climb towards the league’s elite.
For most fans, the enduring image of Ridley’s 2012 season is him fumbling in the AFC Championship game after being knocked unconscious by a vicious blow to the head from (then) Ravens safety Bernard Pollard. Ridley spoke to the Boston Globe last year about wanting to be the hammer and not the nail, but on that play, he may as well have been a thumbtack.
If New England’s OTAs are any indication, he’s taken steps to ensure he won’t be on the receiving end of many more blows this season. According to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, Ridley added significant muscle to his frame.
Jeff Howe @jeffphowe
Stevan Ridley looked like a house today. He's added a noticeable amount of muscle. Might be even more difficult to tackle in 2013.5/2/2013, 9:06:30 PM
With his new physique Ridley won’t just be the hammer when he delivers blows to opposing defenders—he’ll also be the anvil when they try to do the same to him. Despite his reputation as a tackle-breaker, Ridley actually ranked among the league’s worst running backs in that department in 2012. According to footballoutsiders.com, he broke a tackle on just 4.1 percent of his total touches, making him the NFL's sixth worst RB in that department.
With his added muscle, Ridley should break more tackles than ever, making him a fearsome foe for any defender and a lethal load-bearer for the league’s best offense. As long as he doesn’t lose too much of his trademark explosiveness, New England’s Sherpa will leave defenses gasping for air on his way to the top.
UPS- Shane Vereen
What can Vereen do for you? If you’re the New England Patriots, a little bit of everything. Whether by ground or by air, Vereen has proven he can deliver.
He only eclipsed 10 carries in a game twice during the 2012 season but surpassed 40 yards rushing five times including the playoffs. He has the quickness and explosive burst to break a long run at any moment, and with Danny Woodhead stayin’ classy in San Diego, Vereen will slide into his role as the Patriots’ change-of-pace back.
Through the air, New England’s latest all-purpose threat has a highlight reel that would make some wide receivers jealous. His most notable performance came against the Houston Texans in last year’s AFC Divisional playoff game, where he toasted the Houston defense for 83 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions.
Vereen likely won’t start but neither did Woodhead, and he amassed over 2,100 total yards in three seasons by catching screen passes, running draw plays and squirting through the line on third downs and in the hurry-up offense. Vereen should have no problem filling Woodhead’s role and if past performance is any indication he actually represents an improvement.
While playing at California, Vereen was the change-of-pace back and primary backup to Jahvid Best, so the role is one he’s comfortable with. In that capacity, he racked up 2,132 total yards and 19 touchdowns in two seasons before eventually taking over the top spot on the depth chart in 2010.
With more involvement in New England’s offense and his blossoming all-around skill set, look for Vereen to play a critical role in the Patriots’ success in 2013.
The Aurochs- Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount
A precursor to modern-day cattle, aurochs are most often found in fantasy novels like Game of Thrones. Renowned for their ability to carry immense loads and difficulty to bring down, they don’t set any land-speed records but plod along with a steely determination.
With their legendary size and strength, many people don’t realize that aurochs are not mythical creatures but rather an extinct species—typically depicted as a cross between a modern buffalo and a wooly mammoth.
Like the aurochs, these two lack much in the way of agility or pure speed, but both are daunting loads to bring down, especially Blount, who tips the scales at 247 pounds.
Bolden proved in 2012 that he has the power and determination to grind out tough yards. His no-nonsense, straight-ahead style of running plays very well in short-yardage situations and in the red zone, where his ability to take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’ netted him both of his rushing touchdowns.
Barring injury, he won’t play a major role on offense, but he can do the yeomen’s work and will provide invaluable depth for the Patriots.
Blount is the true aurochs though. He inexplicably struggles in short-yardage situations, but once he gains momentum, he’s capable of stampeding through defenses and busting out runs of mythical proportions. At his best he tramples would-be tacklers and runs with a fury that would have prehistoric pack hunters scurrying for their caves.
As a bruising back with little-to-no pass-catching skills and suspect protection abilities, Blount is a dying breed. With the NFL’s continued offensive evolution, he may soon join his behemoth bovine brethren in extinction.
His shortcomings in blitz pickup make him something of a liability on passing downs, but in New England’s wide-open offense, he should face enough five- and six-man fronts to grind out the occasional highlight-reel rumble.
Orville the Albatross- Leon Washington
Like the scatterbrained air courier from Disney’s The Rescuers, Washington is only expected to carry a very light load.
In fact, he’s really a running back in name only at this point in his career. He figures to be the team’s primary return specialist, but after amassing a paltry 103 carries over the past three seasons, don’t expect him to suddenly start toting the rock at age 30.
In his early days with the New York Jets he was a respectable receiver out of the backfield, so he may find himself involved in the screen game where his Pro-Bowl return skills will make him a dangerous weapon in open space. He could conceivably sneak his way into a handful a running back draws as well.
His skill set resembles that of former Patriot Kevin Faulk (and he wears No. 33 to boot), so whatever contributions he makes likely won’t stand out in the box score. Still, with his ability to create for himself and elude defenders in space, he doesn’t need to carry a major load to have a major impact.
Tow Trucks- James Develin and Akeem Shavers
These two are relatively unknown and have exactly zero regular-season carries between them. Like a tow truck, you hope you never need them, but it’s nice to know they’re available to haul your rear end in an emergency.
Develin is a load at 6’3”, 251 pounds and was added to New England’s practice squad last season after being released by the Cincinnati Bengals. After playing defensive end at Brown University, he’s transitioned to fullback in hopes of sticking in the NFL.
Considering he was only active in one game over the last two years and given how rarely the Patriots utilize a true fullback, he’s a long shot to see the field at all this season. Then again, Belichick loves smart players, so maybe he’ll find a way to squeeze some use from the former Ivy Leaguer. I wouldn’t rule out Develin earning a role on special teams.
Shavers, on the other hand, is a true running back—he just doesn’t have any NFL experience.
An undrafted free agent out of Purdue, Shavers was released earlier this offseason by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Patriots scooped him up.
He didn’t post eye-popping numbers as a Boilermaker, rushing for 871 yards and six touchdowns in 2012. He added 370 yards and three touchdowns receiving, but he wasn’t on most draft radars and didn’t receive an invitation to the combine.
He did have an outstanding pro day, however.
According to NFLDraftScout.com, Shavers ran as low as 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash and complemented his speed display with a remarkable 39" vertical leap and 19 reps on the bench press. Perhaps the biggest attention grabber for the Patriots, however, was his excellent time of 6.89 seconds in the three-cone drill.
The Patriots have a history of high interest in players who excel in that drill, as evidenced by their drafting of Josh Boyce and Logan Ryan and signing of T.J. Moe—all three of whom were among the 10 best in the drill at this year’s combine.
With his agility and speed, Shavers could be a surprise contributor in the return game. Add his receiving skills to the mix and he projects as an excellent insurance policy for Vereen should he succumb to injury or poor production.