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Countdown to camp: Running back

07.16.14 at 7:00 am ET
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Stevan Ridley is heading into the last year of his contract. (AP)

Stevan Ridley is heading into the last year of his contract. (AP)

As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We opened wide receiver and tight end. Now, it’s running back.

Depth chart: Stevan Ridley (178 carries, 773 rushing yards, 7 TDs), Shane Vereen (44 carries, 208 rushing yards, 1 TD; 47 catches, 427 receiving yards, 3 TDs), Brandon Bolden (55 carries, 271 rushing yards, 3 TDs; 21 catches, 152 receiving yards), James Develin (4 carries, 10 rushing yards, 1 TD), James White, Stephen Houston, Jonas Gray, Roy Finch

Overview: While the passing game occasionally stalled out in 2013, the running game became one of the positions of strength down the stretch last season. While Ridley struggled with fumble issues (so much so he was benched for a December game against the Texans) and Vereen had health problems, it was LeGarrette Blount who provided a boost midway through the year. And after Vereen returned to full health and Ridley bounced back from his ball security issues, that trio formed an impressive group that powered the Patriots late in the regular season and into the divisional playoffs against the Colts. In particular, it was Blount who led the way — after being hooked up to the rejuvenation machine, he produced 431 yards in a three-game stretch (two at the end of the regular season and one playoff game), including 189 yards in the regular-season finale against the Bills. Bolden and Develin did well providing depth, with Bolden seeing an uptick in snaps when Vereen was on the shelf. And Develin provided one of the highlights of the season with his Csonka-esque TD run against the Texans. Going forward, Blount left for Pittsburgh as a free agent, but the Patriots used a fourth round pick on White, a Wisconsin product who fumbled just twice in 754 career touches as a collegian. In addition, they picked up Houston, Gray and Finch, with at least one of them likely ticketed for the practice squad.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. When healthy, Shane Vereen is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the league.

Vereen played in just eight games last season because of a thumb injury, and while there were some ill-timed drops in the second half of the year, was still able to finish with 47 catches and 44 carries. It’s one thing to become a 40-40 guy — Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead were the last New England running backs to turn the trick. However, it was made all the more impressive by the fact that Vereen did it in just eight games. The full range of his impressive abilities were on display in the 2013 opener against the Bills where he had 14 carries and seven catches, and averaged 7.57 yards every time he touched the ball. If he can ever stay healthy for a full 16-game season, he has the potential to reach Sprolesian levels.

2. The Patriots believe in the fullback.

The last few years, New England had occasionally added part-time fullbacks to the roster, but players like Lousaka Polite and Lex Hilliard usually only ended up sticking around Foxboro for a few weeks before moving on. But in 2013, for the first time since they had Heath Evans on the roster in 2008, the Patriots employed a full-time fullback in Develin. He was one of 11 fullbacks to finish the year with at least 325 snaps over the course of the regular season, per Pro Football Prospectus. And while he didn’t post crazy offensive numbers — four carries, 10 yards and a touchdown — he was an effective member of the offensive game plan. In perhaps a nod to Develin’s effectiveness in 2013, according to Football Outsiders, the Patriots were one of the few teams to run better from two-back formations (5.0 yards per carry) than from single-back formations (4.6 yards per carry).

3. At running back, the Patriots are planning for the future.

The Patriots entered the offseason as one of the deeper teams at the running back position — at least before the departure of Blount — but that didn’t stop them from using a fourth-round pick on White this offseason. In addition, they added three rookie free agents, including an intriguing prospect in Finch who impressed many in spring workouts. With Ridley and Vereen heading into the final years of their respective rookie deals, it’s hard not to look at the collection of youngsters and wonder if New England is guarding itself against the potential loss of one of both of them following the 2014 season. That’s not to suggest that White or any of the rest of the rookies aren’t capable of providing support this season. It just seems that in a perfect world, the Patriots might have their eye on White, Finch and the rest of the backs as potential contributors in 2015 and beyond.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Can Ridley keep ball security issues at bay?

Ridley had fumble problems throughout the 2013 season, and while he rounded into form late in the year — he had 63 straight touches without a fumble to end the year — people are still going to wonder about ball security issues. He fully admitted this spring that he’ll be in the spotlight this year when it comes to avoiding turnovers, and can erase any sort of doubts if he can hang on to the rock for the bulk of the 2014 season.

2. Can Vereen stay healthy?

Vereen was dogged by wrist and groin problems in 2013, with the former leaving him sidelined last year for eight games. (He was placed on IR-designated for return after the opener against Buffalo.) When he did return, the wrist likely played a role in the fact that he ended the year with a whopping nine dropped passes. He told ESPN Boston this past spring that his surgically repaired wrist still isn’t completely healed. As a result, his pass-catching skills will certainly bear watching when camp convenes later this month.

3. Which one of the rookies has the best chance to make the 53-man roster?

Probably White (more on him shortly), but Finch showed enough in OTAs and minicamp to indicate that he could make it tough for the Patriots to try and get him through waivers and to the practice squad. A 5-foot-7, 167-pounder out of Oklahoma, Finch was a multidimensional threat for the Sooners — as a collegian, he had 262 carries for 1,412 yards and eight touchdowns to go with 58 receptions for 442 yards and two touchdowns. He looked good through the spring sessions, showing a nice pair of hands out of the backfield.

By the numbers: In 2013, the Patriots were one of three teams to finish with at least 2,000 yards rushing and at least 4,000 yards passing. (Green Bay and Philadelphia were the other two.) New England has had good offensive balance in years past, but were almost always considered a pass-first bunch. (Frankly, when you have Tom Brady under center, it just makes sense.) But in a year where the Patriots needed the running game to assert itself, the backfield really did an impressive job stepping into the void.

Key new player: White. The 5-foot-10, 194-pounder — who appears to have an awful lot of Vereen-type of qualities — finished his Wisconsin career ranked No. 4 in school history with 4,015 rushing yards, including a career-high 1,444 yards on 221 carries (6.5 average) and 13 touchdowns. He also finished third all-time at UW in rushing touchdowns (45), which is tied for the eighth-most in Big Ten history. But the stat that really jumps off the page are his fumbles. Or back thereof. He fumbled just twice in 754 career touches as a collegian.

The skinny: The 2013 Patriots came within two wins of becoming the first team since the 1987 Redskins to win a Super Bowl while employing a running back by committee. (Defined as a team that had at least four different backs finish the year with 40 carries or more.) With the departure of Blount — and the expected return of Rob Gronkowski, which should give a boost to the passing game — don’t look for New England to spread the wealth in similar fashion in 2014. However, the Patriots will still rely on multiple backs to move the chains on the ground. Both Ridley and Vereen will be fascinating studies this year — both are expected to get the majority of work in 2014, but both are entering the final year of their rookie deals. How long will New England wait when it comes to potentially re-signing them? Will the fact that he doesn’t have a deal beyond this season be a distraction for Ridley? And how will Ridley respond if ball security issues become an issue again? The combination of questions will make the running back spot one of the most intriguing positions on the Patriots roster this upcoming season.

Read More: Countdown to Camp,
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