To say that the New England Patriots have had a rocky offseason in 2013 is one whopper of an understatement.
A team that entered 2013 with one of the NFL's most explosive offenses is now reeling, and if the Patriots are going to accomplish their annual goal of winning the Super Bowl, then several players are going to have to step up their games this year.
Chief among them is running back Shane Vereen.
The losses for the Patriots on offense over the offseason have been nothing short of staggering.
Running back Danny Woodhead departed in free agency and so did wide receiver Wes Welker, who is now in Denver catching passes from Peyton Manning. Fellow wideout Brandon Lloyd was released, as was star tight end Aaron Hernandez, who now sits in a Massachusetts jail facing first-degree murder charges.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski is still with the team, but multiple operations on his broken forearm and surgery on his back have conspired to leave the 24-year-old's status for Week 1 very much in doubt.
A look at the impact the offseason has had on the Patriots' passing game reveals some startling statistics.
Of Tom Brady's 4,827 passing yards in 2012, over 70 percent went to players who are no longer with the team. Throw in Gronkowski's yardage, and over 4,200 receiving yards from the 2012 season may well not be on the field when the Patriots start the season Sept. 8 in Buffalo.
That's a lot for even a Hall of Fame quarterback like Tom Brady to overcome, and that is where players like Vereen come in.
It may seem a bit strange to state that a player who had only eight catches last season is going to be a big part of the Patriots' passing attack in 2013. However, as soon as Danny Woodhead headed west in free agency, Vereen was set for a much larger role as New England's primary third-down back.
It's a role that Vereen reportedly welcomes. He told Zuri Berry of Boston.com that he doesn't feel any increased pressure about an increase in touches:
I don't know if I feel pressure. I know that everybody on the team has a job and a role. When your number is called, you have a job to do. That's what I like, that's what I look forward to. I'm just hoping that when my number is called, I can fulfill my job to my best ability.
Of course, that was before Hernandez was arrested. Now, the pressure has jacked up that much more on Vereen and New England's other pass-catchers to pick up even more of the slack.
Luckily, Vereen has offered some glimpses in his short NFL career that indicate he has the talent to step into a much bigger role with the Pats.
Vereen barely played as a rookie after being selected in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft, and he came out on the losing end of the battle with fellow third-year pro Stevan Ridley to be New England's starter in the backfield.
It hasn't been all bad news though. Last Thanksgiving, Vereen offered the first real glance at what he was capable of as a receiver when he reeled in an 83-yard touchdown pass in a rout of the the New York Jets.
Note: At this point I am contractually obligated to mention that that was the infamous "butt fumble" game.
Granted, the play was a fairly simple wheel route, but Vereen still did a fine job of catching the ball in stride and displaying impressive speed in out-running the New York defenders.
However, it was in New England's last victory of the season where Vereen truly had his coming-out party.
In the Patriots' divisional round playoff win over the Houston Texans, Vereen tallied 124 total yards and three touchdowns, including two through the air.
One of those touchdown receptions was a very nice catch on a deep throw from Brady, an over-the-shoulder grab in tight coverage that showed his soft hands and excellent concentration.
Vereen is not just a one-trick pony either. As this first-down run in the Patriots' first meeting with the Jets last year shows, the 5'10", 205-pound Vereen is capable of exploding through the hole and picking up yardage on the ground as well.
All those skills are going to be put to the test in 2013.
Not only was Woodhead the Patriots' primary third-down back, but he was an integral part of the Patriots' vaunted "hurry-up" attack. That hurry-up attack, by extension, is an integral part of the New England offense.
A large part of the reason why the Patriots led the NFL in both total offense and scoring in 2012, was the fact that they also led the league in offensive snaps per game.
The frenetic pace of the Patriots' no-huddle offense not only wears out opposing defenses, but it also could help create the sort of mismatches that might help offset this year's perceived drop-off in talent from last year's receivers in New England.
A strong third season from Vereen will be essential in that regard. He's capable of lining up all over the formation, a strategy that Field Yates of ESPN expects the Patriots to employ this season.
Granted, Vereen can't do it alone. The Patriots badly need Gronkowski to hurry up and get better. Free agent acquisition Danny Amendola, brought in to replace Welker, is also going to have to stay healthy and perform as advertised.
Fellow newcomer Michael Jenkins needs to find the fountain of youth and ditch his nickname of "Molasses Mike," rookies Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson need to grow up in a hurry, and tight ends Jake Ballard and Michael Hoomanawanui are likely going to be called on to play a much more significant role than originally intended.
The odds of all those things breaking the Patriots way this year aren't very good, especially if their luck so far in 2013 is any indication.
That could lead Brady to lean more heavily on the ground game, which brings us back to Ridley and Vereen.
The Patriots are a team where the whole has been greater than the sum of its parts for many years. As much talent as there has been on its roster, however, a great deal of the club's success has been the result of "The Patriot Way."
Well, "The Patriot Way" is going to be sorely tested this season.
If they're going to pass that test, then Shane Vereen needs to get an "A" on the field in 2013.
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