Stevan Ridley Facing Competition for Patriots Starting Running Back Role

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Stevan Ridley Facing Competition for Patriots Starting Running Back Role
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Stevan Ridley (No. 22) knows what to do to hold onto the ball. He just has to do it.

Patriots running back Stevan Ridley should be grinning ear-to-ear heading into his contract year. The LSU product is the favorite to be New England’s starter for the third year in a row.

Over his pro career, he has gained 2,477 rushing yards and scored 20 touchdowns. Of his peers from the 2011 draft class, only the Dallas CowboysDeMarco Murray has gained more yards.

Even greater peace of mind for Ridley is that LeGarrette Blount, Ridley’s biggest threat, signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent. Nevertheless, Ridley has legitimate reasons to look over his shoulder. Not only is there solid competition gunning for his spot, but the Patriots have nine reasons to find a ball-carrier who will do what Ridley hasn’t: hold onto the ball.

As good as Ridley has been, he has nine fumbles, with eight in the last two seasons. That is unacceptable. Head coach Bill Belichick puts protecting the football above all else when it comes to football fundamentals. And just like the greatest ability is availability, all the ability in the world doesn’t trump ball security.

The last sentence summarizes Ridley. He’s the Patriots’ best running back since Corey Dillon. He has great lateral quickness. And while he lacks explosive speed, he consistently rips off 10- to 20-yard chunks and gets tough yards, near the goal line included.

But all that talent means nothing if he can’t keep his grip on the ball.

Fumbling the ball is bad enough, but the results of Ridley’s butterfingers were very costly in 2013.

His fumble against the Buffalo Bills last year was returned for a touchdown. The Pittsburgh Steelers offense eventually converted Ridley’s fumble into a 20-yard touchdown pass.

Dropping the ball at the Carolina Panthers’ 13-yard line killed New England’s drive and was turned into three points by the Panthers. New England ultimately lost the game by four.

The last straw was the fumble against the Denver Broncos; it was the third week in a row Ridley dropped the football. It was returned for a 60-yard touchdown.

Ridley didn’t start for the rest of the season.

Belichick tried benching him and putting him right back in. It didn't make a difference. If Ridley can’t keep his grip in training camp and preseason, he could come off the bench in 2014, if not worse.

Two rookies will be hungry to take someone’s job. 2014 fourth-round pick James White is a strong, compact (5’10”, 206 pounds) runner who gained 4,015 rushing yards and scored 45 touchdowns for Wisconsin. He is out to prove his production was not just a product of running behind the Badgers’ massive offensive line for four years.

Rookie free agent Stephen Houston lacks White’s resume because he played for three bad Indiana teams (1-11, 4-8 and 5-7 records the past three years), but highlights give the impression that Houston may be a better player than his statistics.

If Ridley feels a little nervous, he shouldn’t be alone. Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden are playing for contracts as well.

After his best season, Vereen might be the safest bet to keep his job, though White and the diminutive Roy Finch (5’7”, 180 pounds) could challenge Vereen.

Bolden showed versatility with 21 receptions for 152 yards but was also inconsistent at times.

If no one in camp impresses, the Patriots won’t hesitate to acquire a veteran running back. With the NFL treating running backs like they’re disposable, Belichick would gladly recycle a veteran. He’s done it before with Dillon, Blount, Antowain Smith, Sammy Morris and Mike Cloud.

New England’s offense will be at its best as long as the running game balances out the potent passing game. Ridley is capable of leading the backfield like he did the past two seasons. It’s up to him to hold onto the spot.


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