New England Patriots: Running Backs Looking at Overhaul

Drew BonifantAnalyst IIMay 24, 2011

FOXBORO, MA - AUGUST 26:  Kevin Faulk #33 of the New England Patriots carries the ball in the first half against the St. Louis Rams on August 26, 2010 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Rams defeated the Patriots 36-35. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

The Patriots said hello to many new faces in the running back corps on draft day.

They didn’t say goodbye to the ones already there, but in essence, that’s what they were doing.

New England’s running back bunch had been among the more seasoned groups on the roster entering this offseason. Kevin Faulk has been the warrior, a Patriot since 1999. Sammy Morris has been there since 2007, and Fred Taylor, albeit a Patriot for only two years, has 13 years’ experience in the NFL.

The 2011 NFL draft is a sign that things are changing in the backfield. Stevan Ridley, out of LSU, and Shane Vereen, out of California, were selected. Twenty-six-year-old Danny Woodhead emerged as the top receiving back last year, while 25-year-old BenJarvus Green-Ellis became the team’s top rusher.

Suddenly, the spots that belonged to the reliable vets are tenuous, at best. There’s no guarantee that Faulk, a 34-year-old recovering from a torn ACL, returns to overtake Woodhead. Morris, a fullback these days in a game that has phased his kind out, is no longer under contract. Taylor has been hurt both years in Foxboro, and may retire.

The result on-field is a mood of urgency. The Faulk-Morris-Taylor combination could be gone. Vereen (a second-rounder) and Ridley (third) will be expected to contribute right away. Green-Ellis’ and Woodhead’s emergence takes the pressure off of the rookies, but the Patriots made those selections while picturing a deep backfield that takes form right away.

The result off field, however, is of a more sentimental nature. Faulk, whose age and injury situation could make the 2011 season Bill Belichick’s first without the jack-of-all-trades running back, was an emotional leader. Morris played hard during his healthy days in Foxboro. Taylor, while not a Patriots standout, has nonetheless been one of the league’s most consistent runners over the past 12 years.

Those accomplishments make the un-Patriot way of thinking so appealing. We want to give those guys a second chance. We want to see Taylor give it his all for one more season. We want to see Morris run defenders over again. We want to see Faulk in a Super Bowl one more time.

That’s not the way Belichick thinks. He can’t. He saw that the team was in great position and had a great chance to offset those losses. He took it.

That’s been a staple of the Belichick way since he took over as head coach in 2000. Cut ties with players a year too early, not too late. If the draft is any indication, he heeded that code again, even if it comes at the expense of one of New England’s model players and two respected veterans.

Youth expects to reign next year. Woodhead and Green-Ellis become the veterans. Ridley and Vereen will take the field, vying for the opportunity to carry the torch.

That’s how building a team goes. It’s harsh, and it’s natural for there to be casualties. As this year could end up showing, those casualties, unfortunately, can be anyone.