The New England Patriots have sufficiently addressed the departures of running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. As presently constituted, they have a different back they can plug in for any situation.
What they currently do not have, however, is one back they can plug in for every situation.
That's kind of the M.O. for offenses these days, with the short shelf life of running backs giving way to a backfield-by-committee approach that has taken the NFL by storm. The days of a "franchise running back" are nearly as dead as the days of the dinosaur, although there are still a handful of T-rex's running rampant (DeMarco Murray, LeSean McCoy, Marshawn Lynch and a few others).
Even with the advent of the backfield-by-committee, it's hard to recall a backfield that's been as divided as the Patriots backfield will be in 2015. You have some backs who can hammer the rock in the middle of the field, some backs who can catch the ball and block in the passing game and not much in between.
So, how will the Patriots divide up the workload among their backs in 2015?
|Patriots running back carries, 2014|
LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray and Brandon Bolden are most likely to be the first- and second-down backs, carrying the ball between the tackles.
All three backs share a similar big-bodied build, weighing in at 220 pounds or more, making them the ideal size to carry the load and take a beating when running through the A-gaps (between the guards and center) and B-gaps (between the tackles and guards).
Blount brings credence to the nickname "Blount Force Trauma," measuring in at 6'0" and 250 pounds. One look at his frame and it's no mystery how he was able to average 2.73 yards after contact per rush attempt, the eighth-highest average in the NFL last year, according to Pro Football Focus.
He is a bit tall for a between-the-tackles back, which gives defenders a bigger target when trying to bring him down, but Blount credits Patriots head coach Bill Belichick with teaching him the tools he needs in order to be more successful at breaking through contact.
"Bill told me—he said the only thing I wasn't doing right was running with a lower pad level," Blount said after the Patriots' 2013 divisional round win over the Indianapolis Colts. "So, I changed that and I started breaking more tackles, started getting a lot of extra yardage after contact."
As it stands, Blount is the hot hand among the Patriots running backs, and should continue to get a majority of the workload on first and second downs.
Don't count on Blount, Gray or Bolden to provide a spark on third downs, though; the most receptions any of them have had in one season was Bolden with 21 catches, and that was in 2013, as the Patriots tried (in vain) to plug him in as a scatback when Vereen missed time in the middle of the season. Blount maxed out at 15 receptions in 2011; Gray had just one seven-yard catch in 2014.
In terms of a pure pass-catching threat, there may be none better (or at least none more proven) on the Patriots roster than Travaris Cadet. From 2012 to 2014, Cadet spent more time catching passes than actually running the rock, finishing his New Orleans Saints career with 45 receptions and 11 rushing attempts.
Cadet can catch passes out of the backfield, but he takes the term "receiving back" to new levels. One thing Vereen was known for during his time in New England was his ability to line up as a wide receiver and run routes; Cadet shares that ability, according to his former head coach Sean Payton. He told Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald:
He's a real smart player. He's exceptional as a receiver. His ability to run routes other than just from the running back route tree, he is someone that can jump in the receiver line and run out-routes and run comebacks and actually has experience doing that. So when he came to us as an (undrafted) free agent in '12, he came the first week or two and was in receiver meetings and receiver drills.
Right now, the spot should be considered completely up for grabs. Cadet is brand-new in the Patriots offense and may not have a firm grasp of all his responsibilities right away. James White took what was essentially a redshirt year as a rookie in 2014. Tyler Gaffney spent the whole year on injured reserve, so who knows what kind of impact he'll have on the team.
That being said, at least the Patriots have given themselves options. Training camp will be the proving ground on which those players either step up or step off the field.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.