Patriots Full Position Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis at Running Back
Though the New England Patriots have typically thrived upon the right arm of Tom Brady, the running game has emerged as a real threat over the past two seasons.
Since 2012, the Pats have averaged just a shade over 4.3 yards per rush, good for 10th in the league, per Pro-Football-Reference. Moreover, their 53 rushing touchdowns lead the league during that span, an indication of their willingness to sidestep the truncated passing windows of the red zone.
Going into 2014, New England faces short-term stability but long-term question marks at running back. The trio of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden provide returning stability, but each of them are entering the final year of their respective rookie deal and could conceivably bolt in the offseason. Fourth-rounder James White should be part of the committee this year and looms as an important piece of the future.
New England's egalitarian system will prevent any single back from assuming a Petersonian workload. Thus, depth chart assignments can be tricky. However, based upon last year's distribution and the early signs from OTAs this year, we can decipher the early pecking order as well as key issues facing the position this upcoming season.
6th-8th String: The Unknowns
The trio of Stephen Houston, Roy Finch and Jonas Gray all represent young unknowns on the roster. Though they are obvious long shots to make the 53-man roster, each of them possess traits that could make them a training camp surprise and/or a practice-squad candidate.
Houston, in particular, appears to stand a reasonable shot at the final roster. The Indiana running back possesses an explosive first step that could make him an ideal fit for one-cut zone runs. Local writers such as Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald and ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss have already pinpointed Houston as a particularly impressive under-the-radar rookie.
To make the team, Houston will need to demonstrate his big-play ability during the preseason. Though not a particularly strong back, he did average 6.1 yards per touch over four seasons in Bloomington. That type of playmaking ability could be worth stashing away for the future.
Another undrafted rookie, Oklahoma's Roy Finch, is cut from a similar cloth. Finch's best collegiate season came during his sophomore year, when he compiled 901 total yards on 6.1 yards per touch. The 5'6" Finch faces long odds because of his size, but like Houston he is a home-run threat worth keeping an eye on.
Gray enters his third season in the league having never been on an active roster. Signed to a future/reserve contract in January, the former Notre Dame product is a thick-bodied back who is a powerful runner. However, he struggles laterally and has movement skills more akin to that of a fullback. The Pats already have one of those on their roster, making Gray the longest shot to stick.
5th String: James Develin
In reality, James Develin is a running back in name only. Develin played 373 offensive snaps last season as the Pats' first primary fullback since Heath Evans' in 2008, playing a more prominent role when the offense evolved into a power-running team by season's end.
According to the Providence Journal's Mark Daniels, Develin has worked out with the tight ends thus far in the spring, highlighting his versatility as a blocking H-back as well. The fourth-year pro out of Brown was largely a neutral presence in 2013, with a Pro Football Focus overall grade (subscription required) that ranked 15th among fullbacks. But with two years in the system, he brings an element of familiarity that the other fringe running backs lack.
Develin is clearly an NFL-quality fullback, and at age 25 there's a bit more room for projection. However, his roster spot may hinge upon the Pats' philosophy toward the running game. If New England shifts back to more spread concepts, a scatback like Houston or Finch might be a better fit than Develin, who fits best in "20" and "21" personnel packages.
One underlying X-factor to Develin's roster status could be the health of Rob Gronkowski. Last season, backup tight end Michael Hoomanawanui graded out as one of the league's worst blockers, as his minus-12.3 combined blocking mark ranked eighth-worst at the position, per PFF.
The depth tight ends look like receiver "F" types, meaning that the Pats might not have an above-average blocking tight end if Gronkowski is unable to start the season. That could potentially increase Develin's value on early downs and secure his roster spot for another year.
4th String: James White
The fourth-round rookie will likely start the season as a seldom-used reserve, but he could ascend the depth chart fairly quickly. At 5'10" and 195 pounds, James White adds another receiving back to the Pats roster, an element they missed in Shane Vereen's absence last season.
White demonstrated a mature running approach at Wisconsin, as vision and patience were among his greatest strengths. That should make him a scheme-diverse back who is capable of executing either zone- or power-blocking run plays. With elusive open-field ability, it would not be a shock to see White impress during the preseason and force his way into more playing time.
Most importantly, White checks off the most important box for Pats running backs: He showed excellent ball security in college, fumbling just twice in 754 career touches. As Shalise Manza Young of the Boston Globe relayed, White understands that his professional future hinges upon his reliability in holding onto the ball.
"Ball security is job security. That’s the quote that I know," White said. "All my coaches stressed that. If the ball’s in your hands, you better protect it. That’s the most important part.”
When Stevan Ridley's fumbilitis threatened to derail the ground game last season, LeGarrette Blount's sure-handed productivity saved the Pats bacon. White is obviously a far different type of player than Blount, but if he proves versatile and dependable, Belichick will be quick to trust him with important reps.
3rd String: Brandon Bolden
The Patriots once had success with an undrafted Ole Miss running back in BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Despite the Law Firm's departure, New England has replicated that feat in Brandon Bolden, who enters his third season in Foxboro as an underrated cog.
It hasn't been all smooth sailing for Bolden. He was suspended for a PED violation during his rookie year in 2012, and various acquisitions like Joseph Addai and Jeff Demps have ostensibly placed his roster status in jeopardy throughout the last two seasons.
Nevertheless, Bolden has persevered through adversity and carved out a valuable niche on the 46-man active game-day roster. He was miscast as a third-down back when Shane Vereen was injured last season, but he does present an enjoyable bruising, downhill running style reminiscent of Ridley. Over 134 career touches, Bolden has averaged an impressive 5.3 yards per carry, higher than any other back currently on the team's roster.
Moreover, Bolden presents additional value as a core-four special-teams contributor. Filling multiple roles is a necessary requirement for any reserve player, and Bolden's presence in the third phase of the game makes him an automatic game-day active, even without a consistent role in the offensive game plan.
If either Ridley or Vereen were to go down in 2014, Bolden appears next in line for significant snaps. After receiving 56 and 55 rushing attempts, respectively, in his first two seasons, it would not be surprising to see him come closer to triple-digit carries this season.
Even with an uptick in performance, Bolden's career has been statistically inconspicuous to date. That should depress his price tag on the open market, making him the most likely impending free agent to return for 2015 and beyond.
2nd String: Stevan Ridley
The distinction between first and second string on the Patriots running back depth chart is technically obsolete. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are very different backs who will have varying workloads throughout the season based upon the type of opponent the Pats are scheduled to play that particular week.
If we define a "starter" as the player on the field for the first snap of the game, then Ridley is likely to receive the majority of starts. However, that seems like an antiquated definition, as it does not reflect the fact that there are many games where "third-down personnel" becomes the default package.
Regardless, Ridley regressed last year after his breakout 2012 season, and it was not simply due to his multiple stints of fumbling woes. Ridley's yards-per-carry average only experienced a negligible dip, (4.4 to 4.3), but the big plays were down. A year after compiling 33 runs of 10 or more yards, he only had 17 such runs last season, per Pro-Football-Reference.
One would think that simply stems from his reduction in carries, but the peripheral stats suggest otherwise. Ridley's 29.0 elusive rating (a stat that considers how difficult a running back was to bring down) ranked 23rd out of 32 backs, as he compiled just 2.18 yards after contact per carry, which ranked 20th.
Indeed, on a per-play basis, Ridley's big-play ability was worse. His breakaway percentage (percentage of yards that come on runs of 15 or more yards) was 18.3 percent last season after checking in at 25 percent in 2012.
Not all of this is necessarily Ridley's fault, as the Pats' run-blocking last season was noticeably worse at right tackle and center than it was in 2012. However, it's clear that while the fourth-year back possesses plenty of talent and promise, he has arrived at a crossroads in his Patriots tenure.
1st String: Shane Vereen
When everything shakes out, expect Shane Vereen to receive the majority of the snaps at running back. Though Vereen has had injury issues throughout his three-year career, he played in 47.3 percent of the snaps in games he suited up for, the highest mark of any Pats running back.
That's indicative of Vereen's value as a third-down back, which has always been a staple of the New England offense during the Brady-Belichick era. Even in just eight games, Vereen compiled 635 yards from scrimmage and averaged an impressive 7.0 yards per touch.
If he stays healthy for 2014, Vereen could burst onto the scene as one of the league's best pass-catching backs. Last season, only Darrren Sproles had more yards per pass route run, as Vereen compiled 2.14 yards for every route he ended up running. For reference, that's roughly equal to the number Brandon Marshall produced last season for Chicago.
Vereen also improved significantly as a pass-blocker last season, an underrated aspect of his game that led to more playing time. In 32 pass-blocking snaps, Vereen gave up just one pressure all season. Though that's a relatively small sample size, it bodes well for Vereen's continued usage in more than just obvious passing situations.
Of all the weapons on the New England offense, Vereen may end up having the most underrated impact. His quickness and route-running ability allows the Patriots to split him out wide as a receiver, where linebackers are generally helpless to contain him in space.
Although many lamented the injuries of Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola last season, Vereen's eight-week absence also had a significant impact on the Pats' passing game. Thus, his health represents a quietly important variable toward the Patriots offensive success in 2014.
Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).