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Next back up: Departure of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen this offseason underscores Patriots approach at running back 04.09.15 at 12:04 am ET
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LeGarrette Blount could be the seventh different back in 11 seasons to lead the Patriots in rushing yardage in 2015. (Getty Images)

LeGarrette Blount could be the seventh different back in 11 seasons to lead the Patriots in rushing yardage in 2015. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

While not wholly unexpected, the Patriots’ decision Wednesday to let Stevan Ridley walk to a divisional rival in free agency is the sort of personnel move that simply underscores the franchise philosophy when it comes to running backs: plug-and-play.

Regardless of Ridley’s injury history, the idea that the Patriots let a 26-year-old running back with a 1,200-yard season on his resume walk out the door without hesitation underscores the fact that, simply put, no team is more comfortable with change in the backfield than the New England. In all, with Shane Vereen (96 carries) and Ridley (94 carries) both departing this offseason as free agents, the Patriots will lose 43 percent of their carries from the 2014 regular season. In this day and age, those are the sort of numbers that would cripple most offenses. For New England? It’s business as usual.

Some of New England’s attitude can be traced back to the fact that when you have a two-time MVP under center, you can afford to cycle through skill position players, especially in an era where running backs have been devalued. The Patriots have also been excellent at identifying relatively under-the-radar types like Jonas Gray and Danny Woodhead and finding specific areas where they could excel while in New England.

But still, when stacked against the rest of the league, the turnover at the position really stands out. Over the last 10 seasons, six different backs (Gray, Ridley, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris and Corey Dillon) have led the Patriots in rushing yards — in that span, only the Cardinals, Browns and Saints have had more different backs lead their team in rushing than the Patriots.

Of course, it’s not just the idea of change. New England is different than most when it comes to the running back position. In 2014, for example, the Patriots became the first Super Bowl champion since the 1987 Redskins to finish the regular season with 40 backs with 40 or more carries. According to Elias, New England became the first team to reach the Super Bowl without having a player with 100 rush attempts that season. And in his 20 years as a head coach, Bill Belichick has never had a running back go for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. (The closest? Antowain Smith, who rushed for 2,781 yards in his three seasons with the Patriots, including 1,157 in 2001 and 982 in 2002.)

Currently, the senior member of the New England backfield — in terms of time in the system — is 25-year-old Brandon Bolden, who has played a grand total of 38 regular-season games with the Patriots. LeGarrette Blount (21 games with New England), Gray (8) and James White (3) round out the current backs on the roster who have accrued any sort of playing time while in New England.

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Read More: Bill Belichick, Brandon Bolden, Dion Lewis, Ivan Fears
Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Running back 02.10.15 at 9:00 am ET
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Shane Vereen led the Patriots in offensive touches for the 2014 regular season. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Shane Vereen led the Patriots in offensive touches for the 2014 regular season. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

With the Patriots done for the season, we’ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the Patriots stand. We kicked off the series with a look at the special teams and wide receivers. Now, it’s the running backs.

Depth chart: Shane Vereen (96 carries, 391 rushing yards, 2 TDs; 52 catches, 447 receiving yards, 3 TDs), Stevan Ridley (94 carries, 340 yards, 2 TDs), Jonas Gray (89 carries, 412 yards, 5 TDs), LeGarrette Blount (60 carries, 281 yards, 3 TDs), Brandon Bolden (28 carries, 89 yards, 1 TD), James White (9 carries, 38 yards), James Develin (3 carries, 5 yards)

Overview: The only thing constant is change, and that has pretty much been the case with the New England ground game over the last decade. Bill Belichick and the Patriots are big believers in the plug and play system, and while there are occasional misfires (like spending a first-round pick on Laurence Maroney in 2006), there are few high-level teams who get so much out of so many different backs. There’s a reason why Belichick has never had a single back go for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons while working as a head coach, dating all the way back to Cleveland.

In 2014, the Patriots became the first Super Bowl winner since the 1987 Redskins to have four different running backs finish with 40 carries or more in their championship season. Part of that was due to injury (Ridley would have likely been the lead back for the bulk of the season if he hadn’t gone with a season-ending knee injury in October) and part of it was personnel (Gray pretty much fell off the face of the earth after his alarm clock failed to go off and he overslept less than a week after landing on the cover of Sports Illustrated). But they were able to exhaust a number of different options in their pursuit of a steady and consistent ground attack.

Overall, the Patriots ran the ball just enough to keep opposing defenses honest (107.9 yards per game, 18th in the league) and keep the thought of play-action in the back of the minds of opposing defenses. That includes Vereen, an elite third-down option who was one of five running backs to finish the season with at least 50 catches and 50 carries, as well as Blount, who returned midway through the season after torches each of the bridges on the way out of Pittsburgh to average 4.4 yards per carry and six touchdowns down the stretch and into the postseason for New England.

Going forward, there will inevitably be more change — both Ridley and Vereen are set to hit the market as free agents. But even if one or both leave, the Patriots figure to utilize the old plug-and-play approach, as Blount, Bolden, Gray and White are all already under contract for 2015. In addition, Develin is an exclusive rights free agent, which means he’ll be back as well. And Tyler Gaffney, who was claimed off waivers last summer by the Patriots, spent the entire year on the shelf because of a knee injury — he rushed for an astounding 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior at Stanford in 2013. In the end, it should make for an interesting offseason in New England.

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Read More: Brandon Bolden, James Develin, James White, Jonas Gray
Extra special: Patriots special teams has excelled under coach Scott O’Brien 01.28.15 at 12:44 am ET
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Scott O'Brien has been the Patriots' special teams coach for six years. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Scott O’Brien has been the Patriots’ special teams coach for six years. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Often times on some NFL teams, the special teams unit gets over looked. Not so much with the New England Patriots.

Led by special teams coach Scott O’Brien — in his sixth year in New England, but serving as a special teams coach in the NFL since 1991 — the Patriots have emerged as one of the better special teams units in the league, making game-changing plays on numerous occasions.

The Patriots’ special teams group finished first in Rick Gosselin’s famous NFL special teams rankings this year and finished seventh in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ranking, a major credit to the work O’Brien has done with his players.

“I’€™m not sure,” O’Brien said when asked why he’s coached special teams exclusively for 23 seasons. “I’€™m sure I was influenced by a lot of people I came up with through my career. I’€™ve always enjoyed it as a player. I can’€™t put my finger on it, but it’€™s always been something I’€™ve enjoyed doing. I love the schemes, the creation of it. I don’€™t know. I don’€™t think it’€™s just one thing. I’€™ve had a lot of influences on me.”

New England has blocked five kicks this season — four field goals and one punt. The unit has seen three players get named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week in Chris Jones for his field goal block in the closing seconds against the Jets in Week 7, Julian Edelman for his punt return for a touchdown against the Broncos in Week 9 and Ryan Allen for his field position changing punts in Week 14 against the Chargers.

The four blocked field goals on the year was a franchise record.

“I think a lot of it has been, like I said, timing,” O’Brien said. “It’€™s a group effort no matter who blocks it. To block kicks in this league is hard to do. It usually takes more than one thing to happen to have that success, but I think these guys have always worked hard at it. You just get the right combination of the right players in the right spot. You give them a chance to have success, and they have it. It’€™s obviously had a big impact during the games.”

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Read More: 2015 NFL playoffs, Brandon Bolden, Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner
Source: Brandon Bolden signs extension with Patriots 01.09.15 at 8:50 am ET
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Brandon Bolden

Brandon Bolden

According to a source, Patriots running back Brandon Bolden has signed a contract extension with the team.

The news was first reported by ESPN’s Field Yates, who says it is a two-year deal worth $2.32 million, which goes through the end of the 2016 season.

Bolden has been a core special teams player during his three years in New England, but does have 634 rushing yards on 139 carries and six touchdowns in his three years, with only 89 yards coming this season. His best game rushing came in his rookie season when he rushed for 137 yards on 16 carries in a Week 4 win against the Bills.

The 24-year-old was signed as an undrafted free agent after the 2012 draft coming out of Mississippi.

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Read More: 2015 playoffs, Brandon Bolden,
Brandon Bolden, Tim Wright won’t be too wrapped up in Bengals-Broncos 12.22.14 at 3:52 pm ET
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Brandon Bolden

Brandon Bolden

FOXBORO — Despite the fact that if Cincinnati finds a way to beat Denver Monday night — which would clinch the top seed in the AFC for New England — a few of the Patriots said they don’t plan on spending too much time wrapped up in the Bengals-Broncos game.

“I don’t even think I’m watching the game tonight — I’ve actually got a birthday party I’ve got to get to,” confessed running back Brandon Bolden in the locker room Monday afternoon. “Nobody is really talking about it. Everybody is still trying to recover from the Jets game, the war we had yesterday, so I think everybody is going to take the rest of the day to try to just recover.

“If they watch football, they do. But I don’t think anybody is rooting for anybody.”

If Denver beats Cincinnati, that would mean New England’s regular-season finale against the Bills next Sunday at Gillette would still be in play as a meaningful contest as it relates to the playoff chase. As far as tight end Tim Wright is concerned, the focus on Buffalo is the bigger priority for the Patriots.

“It’s going to be a good game,” said Wright when asked about Bengals and Broncos. “[But] we’€™re not really looking past what has to go on with the Bills — what’s coming up next for us. But it’s going to be a good game for them.

“[We’re] just focused on the Bills.”

Read More: Brandon Bolden, Tim Wright,
Brandon Bolden happy to provide Patriots ‘boost we needed’ in win over Chargers 12.08.14 at 3:08 am ET
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SAN DIEGO — It was the biggest play of the game.

The Patriots were stumbling and bumbling on offense and couldn’t finish the deal in the red zone in the first half.

Then Brandon Bolden came off left side and blew right into Mike Scifres, blocked a punt with a thunderous thud and the Patriots were in business at the Chargers’ 25. Four plays later, Tom Brady found Rob Gronkowski for a touchdown and the Patriots were down just a point, 14-13.

Momentum changed thanks to Bolden. The Patriots would wind up winning 23-14 and everyone after the game pointed to Bolden’s play.

“You go into the game thinking you can block one every time it’€™s called,” Bolden said. “I think I just got a really good jump on the snap count. I don’€™t think there was anything he did extra or I did extra. I just got off it quick.”

On the play, Scifres injured his left shoulder and had to be carted off the field.

“I didn’€™t even know he was hurt until after I made it back to the sidelines and everything calmed down,” Bolden said. “I went and checked on him and he said everything was going to be fine.”

So, too, would be the Patriots. The blocked punt set the tone for the defense, with Brandon Browner laying the wood to Ledarius Green in the third quarter.

“Special teams can be a big momentum shifter for any team,” Bolden said. “For this team, it was that boost we needed, and when that happened everything picked up. That momentum shifted and we rode that wave, so I think we did a good job offensively and defensively after that play to stay in the ball game.”

Bolden was asked after the game why he thinks the Patriots have now won 10 straight times after a loss.

“Let’s just say this: Around here, after a loss nobody likes that feeling. We especially don’€™t like that feeling, so everybody just takes it on their shoulders and says we have to go out there and do better.”

Read More: Brandon Bolden, Mike Scifres, New England Patriots,
5 thoughts on return of LeGarrette Blount, state of Patriots running game 11.21.14 at 12:12 am ET
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LeGarrette Blount has returned to Foxboro. What sort of role can he have with the 2014 Patriots? (Getty Images)

LeGarrette Blount has returned to Foxboro. What sort of role can he have with the 2014 Patriots? (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

1. In stark contrast to the nasty words that were coming out of the Pittsburgh locker room in the wake of what happened with LeGarrette Blount over the last week, on Thursday, the vibe around the Patriots was all good when it came to the newest Patriot. Special teams captain Matthew Slater called him a “great teammate,” while fullback James Develin said it was “good” to have him back. Meanwhile, Jonas Gray — who likely will see his role shrink some with the addition of Blount — said he had no problem with the move, adding that the veteran is is a “great guy to learn from.” As for what sort of role awaits him, it’s likely he’ll split duties with Gray as the primary between-the-tackles back, as well as serve as some sort of insurance policy if the stage gets too big for the youngster, or if he puts the ball on the ground at some point. It’s also possible he sees time as a part-time kick returner — with the occasional exception of Danny Amendola, no one has really done much to distinguish themselves in the position. With his background last year, it certainly makes sense for the Patriots to give him a shot back there.

2. Few teams have seen the type of turnover at the running back position as New England. With the injury to Ridley, if form holds, the Patriots will have their sixth different back lead the team in rushing in 2014 over the last decade — only four other teams (Saints, Browns, Broncos and Cardinals) have had more. Corey Dillon (2004-2006), Laurence Maroney (2007, 2009), Sammy Morris (2008), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (2010-2011) and Stevan Ridley (2012-2013). And now, with Ridley on the shelf the rest of the year, this season it figures to be either Vereen, Gray or Blount. That could change again next year, as Brandon Bolden, Ridley and Shane Vereen are all in the final year of their contracts, while Blount, Gray and rookie James White are all under contract for 2015. (In addition, Tyler Gaffney, who was claimed by the Patriots this summer but is spending the year on injured reserve because of a knee issue, is still a possibility to be a part of the mix next season.) Regardless, even with all the changes, things could still change between now and the start of next season.

3. As forward thinking as the Patriots offense — and the passing game in particular — has been the last few years, there’s something impressively retro about what New England might be able to do this season. If we operate with the idea that a “running back by committee” includes a team with four backs with at least 40 carries, it appears that for the second straight season, the Patriots will attempt to be the first team to win a Super Bowl using the “running back by committee” approach since the 1987 Redskins, who won Super Bowl. Right now, the Patriots three different backs reach with at least 69 carries (Ridley with 94, Vereen with 70 and Gray with 69). While some of those numbers are borne out of necessarily since Ridley went down, if Blount is able to click down the stretch for New England — and it’s entirely possible he can hit the 40-carry mark, given his experience in the system — he would be a fourth. If the Patriots could take the title, it would represent the greatest cross-section of work for running backs for any Super Bowl champion since that Washington team emerged with a win in Super Bowl XXII. (Of course, that Redskins team could be discounted on a penalty, as that was a strike year and one of the backs was a scab who rushed 80 times in three strike games but never played another down. If you disqualify them on a technicality, them the last true RBBC team to win a Super Bowl in a non-strike year was the 1981 Niners, a team that had five different backs finish with 40 carries or more: Ricky Patton, Earl Cooper, Johnny Davis, Walt Easley and Paul Hofer.)

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Read More: Ahmad Bradshaw, Andre Ellington, BenJarvus Green Ellis, Brandon Bolden
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