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Examining the Patriots’ running game in the post-Green-Ellis era

03.23.12 at 12:57 am ET
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While the Patriots are not a run-first offense, with 190 touches (181 carries, nine receptions) no offensive skill position player had more touches in 2011 than BenJarvus Green-Ellis, so his departure will create some opportunities for the remaining running backs. Here’€™s a look at who New England has under contract, and how the Patriots’€™ running game could look in 2012.

Stevan Ridley: If you’€™re putting together a depth chart right now, the 5-foot-11, 225-pound Ridley is at the top of the list. Last season as a rookie, the 23-year-old demonstrated he has the size to consistently run between the tackles, as well as display the necessary burst to run away from defenders. He finished the year with 87 carries for 441 yards and one touchdown. (He didn’€™t have enough carries to qualify for a spot among the league leaders, but his 5.1 YPC would have had him tied for 10th in the league.) The late-season ball-security issues were certainly troubling, but as long as he stays away from putting the ball on the ground, there’€™s no reason to think that right now he’€™s not the lead back in the rotation.

Shane Vereen: Vereen struggled with hamstring issues at the start of the season and never really got on track. The 5-foot-9, 205-pounder out of Cal was active for just five games — occasionally due to injury, occasionally because of personnel decisions that rendered him a healthy scratch — and ended the year with 15 carries for 57 yards and a touchdown. (His season-best came in garbage time against the Chiefs when he had eight carries for 39 yards.) When he did get the ball last season, he didn’€™t appear to be a traditional between-the-tackles guy, but more of a speed back. He’€™ll be one to watch come OTA’€™s and training camp.

Danny Woodhead: The heir to Kevin Faulk‘€™s third-down throne. The 5-foot-8, 195-pound Woodhead will continue to be the changeup guy for the foreseeable future out of the backfield, a multidimensional threat who can provide an occasional burst on the ground as well as in the passing game. (He was the only guy on the roster last season who was in the Top 5 on the team in rushing attempts and receptions, finishing the season with 77 carries for 351 yards and a touchdown and 18 catches for 157 yards.) Of all the backs, Woodhead will likely be the least affected by Green-Ellis’€™ departure. However, if Faulk decides to call it a career, Woodhead’€™s workload figures to increase slightly — he isn’€™t in the Welker/Gronkowski class when it comes to offensive dependability, but isn’€™t too far off.

Kevin Faulk: Eminently reliable for so many years, it’€™s still a question as to whether or not he’€™ll return for a 14th season with the Patriots. Faulk, who will turn 36 before the start of the 2012 season, has seen a lessened on-field role the last couple of years for several reasons, not the least of which includes age and a knee injury that ended the 2010 season. At the same time, he has one of the most well respected voices in the New England locker room, and if he does decide to call it a career, it will be interesting to see who fills that leadership void on the offensive side of the ball.

As for some other options, Cedric Benson, Brandon Jacobs, Joseph Addai and Thomas Jones are all veterans who are still available in free agency, and all can likely be had relatively cheap. (They followed that path when they picked up Antowain Smith prior to the 2001 season, and they managed to wring three good years out of him.) In addition, the Patriots could also make running back a priority in the draft. However, New England has rarely gone after a running back in the first round, going for value picks like Vereen in the second round and Ridley in the third. They also had success developing undrafted free agents like Green-Ellis.

Read More: Antowain Smith, BenJarvus Green Ellis, Brandon Jacobs, Cedric Benson
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