Perhaps no position is more unsettled on a year-to-year basis than that of the New England Patriots' starting running back. Early returns suggest that 2014 will be no different in that regard.
Incumbent Stevan Ridley is coming off a difficult season that saw him lose three fumbles as well as the confidence of head coach Bill Belichick. Ridley was usurped by LeGarrette Blount, but with the bruising back now in Pittsburgh, the starting job is there for the taking.
Unfortunately for Ridley, his ball security problems continue to plague him. Ridley fumbled during the Pats' second preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Although New England recovered the fumble, Ridley is aware that his reputation took another hit, according to Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald:
I just gotta learn from it and keep moving and not sulk on it. I will try not to have this issue and this be the topic the whole year this year because I think I can do a few other things that y'all can write about and hopefully have some good things to say. But either way, I've got to own up to it. That's what it was.
With the fourth-year pro continuing to scuffle, rookie fourth-round pick James White has emerged as a potential candidate to start. Even before Ridley's fumble, Phil Perry of CSNNE.com reported on Aug. 13 that White received the bulk of the first-team reps in practice over Ridley.
That certainly raised some eyebrows, but it reaffirmed CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco's belief that White could be something special in the NFL:
Although Ridley is aware that White is among his primary competition for the starting job, he has been extremely complimentary of the rookie out of Wisconsin as well, according to Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe.
"From what I've seen from him, he's been a team player, worked hard, made some great cuts and catches," Ridley said. "He's doing it in all three phases: blitz pickup, passing, and running. And that's what we need in our running back, a complete back."
Even with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and the team as a whole seemingly liking what White has to offer, though, Ridley received starting reps in practice after fumbling against the Eagles, per NESN's Doug Kyed:
That is the prevailing issue when it comes to Patriots running backs from a fantasy standpoint. There is almost no rhyme or reason to why or how Belichick chooses his starter. The winner of the starting job will have value since quarterback Tom Brady isn't afraid to run the ball near the goal line, but picking the winner is an exercise in futility.
With that in mind, the best running back to own from a fantasy perspective is Shane Vereen. While Vereen is more of an offensive weapon than a pure running back, he is a guy who will undoubtedly produce if healthy.
Vereen was limited to eight games last season, but he was targeted 69 times in the passing game by Brady and finished the season with 47 catches for 427 yards. He also added 208 rushing yards and four total touchdowns as one of the Pats' most reliable offensive contributors.
Vereen won't get the bulk of the carries this season provided the other backs remain healthy, but he will be a vital part of the passing game.
In terms of Ridley and White, Ridley is probably the smarter pick at this juncture even with his fumbling issues. He is just two years removed from a 1,200-yard, 12-touchdown season, and he has a career yards-per-carry average of 4.5.
Neither Ridley nor White is deserving of early fantasy selections, but Ridley could have value in the seventh or eighth round as a flex option. White, on the other hand, is a potential sleeper to target in the closing rounds of your draft.
The only certain thing about the Patriots' running back situation in 2014 is that there will be uncertainty.
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