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Countdown to Camp: Running backs

07.23.13 at 9:56 pm ET
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As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Patriots. We’€™ve looked at the special teamers/specialists, linebackers, safeties, cornerbacks, defensive line, offensive line and tight ends. Now, it’€™s the running backs:

Depth chart: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, LeGarrette Blount, James Develin, Leon Washington, George Winn, Ben Bartholomew.

Overview: It’€™s debatable whether or not it was young talent stepping to the forefront or the fact that opposing defenses spent more time worrying about the pass than the run, but the New England running game really emerged as a potent option for the Patriots last season. As the lead back, Ridley finished the season with 290 carries (he was 10 short of becoming the first New England running back since Corey Dillion in 2004 to break the 300-carry barrier) and 1,263 yards, while Danny Woodhead was the first Patriots running back to finish the season with at least 40 carries and 40 receptions since Kevin Faulk in 2008, while Bolden and Vereen shone nicely in complementary roles. With all the changes at wide receiver and tight end over the offseason, the running backs will be asked to replicate — and perhaps improve — on that performance in 2013. But before the new season begins, let’€™s take one last look back and acknowledge the work they did as a group in 2012, a year when there was real balance to the New England offense because of a very nice group of backs.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Ridley is one of the best backs in the game. Critics point to his occasional fumbles, but from a pure statistical perspective, Ridley did more than enough last year to be considered one of the best young backs in the game. At the age of 23, Ridley finished with 1,263 rushing yards — the only back in Patriots history who had a better season before the age of 24 was Curtis Martin, who had 1,487 rushing yards in 1995 at the age of 22. In addition, Ridley is only the 28th running back in the history of the game to gain at least 1,250 rushing yards in a single season before his 24th birthday, and last year came within 10 carries of joining exclusive company: backs who posted 300 carries and averaged at least four yards every carry (it’€™s a group that includes Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster). It figures to be his show again in 2013.

2. There will be a lot on Vereen’€™s plate this year. The shifty third-down option out of Cal showed great proficiency as a pass catcher as a collegian — he finished his college career with 74 receptions. In relatively limited reps over the course of the last two seasons, he provided real moments of brilliance in the passing game, with perhaps his finest moment coming in a Thanksgiving night win over the Jets when he connected with Brady on an 83-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown. With both Wes Welker and Woodhead now gone, Vereen will almost certainly be in line for more reps and asked to fill the void. If he stays healthy, his versatility (he can line up split wide, as well as in the backfield) will provide a dynamic offensive element to the New England offense this season.

3. Of the guys at the back end of the depth chart, Winn has the most intriguing resume. He’€™s certainly a longshot to make the roster, but Winn was revealed as the most explosive running back in all of college football last year. The 5-foot-10 1/2, 218-pounder, who was signed and then waived by the Texans this spring (thanks in large part to a deep backfield in Houston that left the Texans with no other choice) had a slow first three years as a collegian but really busted out in 2012 as a senior with the Bearcats when he finished with 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns on 243 carries. But this story from Jon Moore of RotoViz went inside the numbers and came away with some remarkable stats on Winn’€™s work, saying he ‘€œmight be the most explosive and underrated running back in the 2013 NFL draft‘€ because of his ability to break off long runs. Moore notes that in Winn’€™s 13 games as a senior, he had 10 games where he finished with at least one rush of 18 yards or more (77 percent). That’€™s a better percentage than any of the other elite running backs who were a part of this year’€™s draft class, including Eddie Lacy or Montee Ball. Not sure if he’€™ll be able to make that translate to the next level, but on a team that prides itself on finding running backs in the most out of the way places, certainly the kind of player who will catch your eye.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Can Washington bring anything to the offense, or will he work strictly as a returner? Washington has put up good numbers as a third-down option in his career (he caught at least 25 passes a year in his first three years in the league with the Jets), but those numbers dropped over the last three years (he had 23 with the Seahawks from 2010-2012). At this stage of his career, the 30-year-old might be a returner first, and work occasionally in spot duty as an option out of the backfield, or if Vereen goes down with an injury. That’€™s not necessarily a shot at Washington — he’€™s been a very good kick returner the last six seasons, as he’€™s averaged at least 24 yards a year when it comes to return work. It’€™s just that with the current roster makeup, it’€™s a matter of playing to your strengths.

2. Can Bolden bounce back after a disappointing finish to 2012? The undrafted rookie burst onto the scene in September, rushing for 137 yards on 16 carries in a blowout of the Bills in Buffalo. After that, we really didn’€™t hear much from him — he broke 50 yards in a game just once the rest of the year, and rushed for a total of 122 yards the rest of the way. Part of that could have due to the emergence of some of the other backs, but at the same time, he was conspicuous in his absence down the stretch, and he certainly didn’€™t help himself by picking up a four-game ban for violating the league’€™s policy on performance enhancers late in the season. As it stands right now, he could be battling Blount for the role of Ridley’€™s backup.

3. Will the Patriots use a fullback? The last true fullback New England had on the roster for any extended stretch was back in 2008 when Heath Evans was in the lineup on a fairly regular basis. Since then, they’€™ve had a handful of fullbacks in and out of Foxboro (Lousaka Polite, we hardly knew ye), but no one has had any real staying power. As the roster is presently constituted, it seems unlikely that they’€™ll find a regular spot for a full-time fullback, particularly with Michael Hoomanawanui, who has played both tight end and fullback and could line up in the backfield if needed. Bartholomew and Develin are both built like fullbacks and have practice squad eligibility, but right now, it seems unlikely that they’€™d stick around for any extended stretch.

By the numbers: New England ran the ball 523 times during the 2012 regular season, the highest total for a Patriots team since the 2004 team ran the 524 times over the course of the regular season.

Key new player: Blount — No one has put on any pads yet so it’€™s truly hard to gauge where some of the new guys are when it comes to getting acclimated to things in Foxboro, but he’€™s certainly an intriguing puzzle piece. He’€™s a between-the-tackles runner who put up some good numbers ‘€” as a rookie in 2010, he rushed for a career-best 1,007 yards on 201 carries, adding six touchdowns. But he fell out of favor in Tampa the last two seasons and was dealt to New England this past spring. If he’€™s healthy, he could bring some depth to the Patriots backfield.

The skinny: This was a very good group of backs last season who will be asked to do more in 2013. One school of thought is that with so many new elements to the Patriots passing game, New England could go to a run-heavy set to start the season while the new receivers try and get acclimated. It would make sense from a practical perspective as well, as three of the Patriots first six opponents (Bills, Jets and Saints) were some of the worst teams in the league against the run last year. While there’€™s no reason to think Ridley can’€™t become the first back under Bill Belichick to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. Vereen will almost certainly have his chance to become an offensive centerpiece, particularly in the passing game, while Blount, Bolden and Washington will help provide depth. An area of strength for the Patriots as the 2013 season dawns.

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