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With LeGarrette Blount gone, do Patriots need to add backfield depth? 03.28.14 at 9:30 pm ET
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Expect Stevan Ridley's workload to increase in 2014. (AP)

Expect Stevan Ridley’s workload to increase in 2014. (AP)

The departure of LeGarrette Blount to the Steelers means there will be more on the plate of Stevan Ridley in 2014, who now appears likely to return to his role as the closest thing the New England offense has to a featured back. Meanwhile, Shane Vereen figures to work in a change up role as the third down option and pass catcher out of the backfield, and Brandon Bolden will stick in his role as all-purpose backup.

But is there a need to bring in another body for depth? While running back isn’t considered an overwhelming priority for the Patriots (there are other greater areas of need, at least at this stage of the team-building process), it wouldn’t be a surprise for them to address it with a mid-round pickup in the draft, especially considering the fact that the bargain basement has been pretty much picked over, at least at this point. (The best options right now are probably Andre Brown, Michael Bush and Justin Forsett, as well as broken-down editions of Felix Jones, Ronnie Brown and Willis McGahee.)

With the understanding that the Patriots would be targeting a guy like that no earlier than the third day of the draft because of other areas of greater need, here are three backs who might be available to the Patriots this year as mid- to late-round possibilities:

a) Storm Johnson, Central Florida – A multidimensional back who has already drawn the attention of the Patriots — the 6-foot, 209-pounder was one of a handful of players who went through a workout for the Patriots’ brain trust when they were in Florida this past week for the league meetings — last season he had 1,139 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground to go along with 30 catches for 260 yards and three receiving touchdowns.

b) Andre Williams, Boston College Remarkably, the 5-foot-11, 230-pounder led the nation in rushing last year for the Eagles, ending up with 2,177 rushing yards and becoming a Heisman finalist as a result. At the combine, he fully acknowledged the fact that he needs to improve when it comes to his work in pass protection as well as a receiver out of the backfield, but his colossal yardage total from last year will almost certainly make him attractive to someone.

c) Bishop Sankey, Washington – A little on the smaller side, like Johnson, this 5-foot-9, 209-pounder offers value in the passing game as well as the running game. Last season, he ran for 1,870 yards for a 5.7 average and 20 touchdowns to go along with 28 catches for 304 yards and one touchdown.

Of course, this doesn’t begin to take into account what the Patriots do at the kick return spot in 2014. Blount’s departure could open the door for any number of possibilities on special teams, including Josh Boyce, Devin McCourty or collegian Jeremy Gallon, who had a private workout for New England special teams coach Scotty O’Brien earlier this week in Ann Arbor. While the different looks that the three backs present should be enough to keep opposing defensive coordinators on their toes in 2014, it’s clear the Patriots do need to address the position going forward, especially considering the fact that Vereen and Ridley are heading into the final year of their rookie deals. Certainly a spot to watch going forward this offseason for New England.

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BC’s Andre Williams would welcome chance to join Patriots 02.22.14 at 9:24 am ET
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Andre Williams ran for 2,177 yards this past year for BC. (AP)

Andre Williams ran for 2,177 yards this past year for BC. (AP)

INDIANAPOLIS — The Patriots aren’€™t likely to be in the market for a running back this year, and if they are, it’€™s unlikely they’€™d go after someone in the first two days of the draft.

With a stable of backs like Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden — and that doesn’€™t begin to take into account whether or not free agent LeGarrette Blount would return — the one offensive skill position area you’€™d think New England would feel pretty good about in 2014.

But that doesn’€™t necessarily stop Boston College running back Andre Williams from speculating about what it might be like to stay in the New England area. Williams, who led the nation in rushing with 2,177 yards and was a Heisman finalist, sounds like he’€™d welcome a chance to stick around the area for as long as he could.

If Blount walks in free agency — and Williams drops in the draft — chances are he might get his wish.

“€œIt would be a blessing to end up on the Patriots squad,”€ said the 5-foot-11, 230-pounder Friday at the combine. “They’€™re a winning franchise. They have a great coach. He seems like a really levelheaded cool guy to deal with. It would be great to go back to the Northeast. That’€™s where my family is situated right now. It would be a great fit.”

Williams, who is current projected as a second-day pick who could end up dropping to the third day of the draft depending on how things shake out, made his bones in a run-first offense at Boston College, one that was tailored to fit his strengths. Even though he was one of the best backs in college football last season, when he reaches the NFL, he knows that he’€™ll have to tweak his game.

“€œI think my game is going to have to evolve,” he acknowledged. “œI think I’€™m going to be called upon to catch the ball more, pass protect more, know what’€™s going on, on defense more. Make reads on fronts and coverages faster than before. That’€™s part of becoming a professional from the amateur level. Upping your level of preparation.

“€œI think my pass protection is solid. This year there was a lot of play-action built in to our game plan. But we did have some drop-back pass. And in past years, the offense was different. I was relied more on pass protection. I think it’€™s pretty solid.”

Williams, who has meetings scheduled with the Bills, Ravens, Jaguars and Bengals, went through some coaching upheaval while at BC, as the Eagles went from Frank Spaziani to Steve Addazio. While the changes led to some struggles, he said it also helped draw the guys on the roster closer.

“I would say my time at BC was…a journey,” said Williams. “There was a lot going on from year to year, different coaching changes and what not. But I think there was a real stability in the team itself. I really enjoyed being around my teammates. I really enjoyed Chestnut HIll and the Boston area. There’€™s a lot of great people a lot of great influences around me at BC. I really enjoyed my time there.”

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Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Running back 01.30.14 at 5:40 pm ET
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LeGarrette Blount had 772 rushing yards over the course of the 2013 regular season, second-best on the team. (AP)

LeGarrette Blount had 772 rushing yards over the course of the 2013 regular season, second-best on the team. (AP)

With the Patriots done for the year, we’€™ve got an end of the year position-by-position breakdown of where the roster stands. We started with special teams, wide receivers and tight ends. Now, it’€™s the running backs.

Depth chart: Stevan Ridley (178 carries, 773 rushing yards, 4.3 YPC, 7 TDs), LeGarrette Blount (153 carries, 772 rushing yards, 5 YPC, 7 TDs), Shane Vereen (44 carries, 208 rushing yards, 4.7 YPC, 1 rushing TD; 47 catches, 427 receiving yards, 3 TDs), Brandon Bolden (55 carries, 271 rushing yards, 4.9 YPC, 3 TDs; 21 catches, 152 receiving yards), fullback James Develin (4 carries, 10 rushing yards, 2.5 YPC, 1 TD).

Overview: This was a fascinating group to watch over the course of the year. The season started with Ridley as the lead back, but that didn’€™t last a full half before he was benched in the opener against Buffalo in favor of Vereen because of a fumble. Vereen then assumed the lead role — until it was revealed at the end of the Bills game that he suffered a wrist injury and would go on IR-DFR. The Patriots turned back to Ridley, who continued to have ball security issues over the course of the season, so much so that he was benched for a game against the Texans.

But as the season went on, Blount began to emerge as a powerful force, while Vereen and Ridley became complementary parts of the running game. While the running game stalled out in the AFC title contest, the stretch drive effort of Blount — 431 yards in a three-game stretch (two at the end of the regular season and one playoff game) — provided a tremendous lift for the New England offense at a time when it needed it most.

(While the three lead backs got most of the ink, it’€™s important to note that Bolden and Develin also provided a boost, Bolden with some much needed depth protection — particularly in spot duty when Vereen was on the shelf — while Develin and his neck roll were able to do a tremendous job clearing the way for the rest of the backs. Prior to the 2013 season, the Patriots hadn’€™t employed a full-time fullback since Heath Evans in 2008, but Develin’€™s work and dependability likely mean he’€™ll be back again in 2014.)

It remains to be seen what this group will look like in 2014. Can Vereen emerge as a healthy and consistent offensive threat? Can Ridley get over whatever ball security issues dogged him over the course of the 2013 campaign and return to full-time, lead-back status? And how deep will the Patriots reach into their own pockets to bring back Blount, who will hit the free agent market as one of the most intriguing prospects on the radar screen? Regardless, figure on the running back position to be one of the strengths of the offense heading into the 2014 season.
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Patriots practice Friday: Brandon Bolden joins Aaron Dobson, Alfonzo Dennard on list of absentees 12.06.13 at 11:06 am ET
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Brandon Bolden (38) was not in attendance at Patriots practice on Friday. (AP)

Brandon Bolden (38) was not in attendance at Patriots practice on Friday. (AP)

FOXBORO — Running back Brandon Bolden was not on hand as the Patriots began their sweats and shells practice Friday in the light rain on the lower practice fields outside Gillette Stadium.

Bolden was not on this week’s injury report and has been a full participant on Wednesday and Thursday after nursing a knee injury earlier in the season.

Three other players were absent Friday, including Alfonzo Dennard, who left the team to deal with a court appearance in Nebraska. Dennard is having another court appearance Friday afternoon in Nebraska to answer to a charge of DUI in July. On Thursday, Dennard was given an additional 30 days in jail, 100 hours of community service and another year of probation for violating terms of his initial probation.

Two other Patriots were absent Friday due to injury as rookie receiver Aaron Dobson continues to nurse a foot injury that forced him to miss Sunday’s game in Houston. Dobson played just 36 of 87 snaps against the Broncos on Nov. 24 before showing up on the injury report last week. The team re-signed Austin Collie Thursday morning for wide receiver depth.

Marcus Cannon injured his ankle against the Broncos in the first half against the Broncos and was replaced by Will Svitek for the remainder of the game. Cannon was not active last Sunday against Houston, marking the first game he has missed this season.

Both Cannon and Dobson have missed practice all week and are expected to be ruled out for Sunday’s game against Cleveland. For the third straight day, the team worked out in sweats and shells on the lower practice fields in preparation for the Browns this Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

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Patriots practice Tuesday: Steve Gregory, Brandon Bolden miss 11.05.13 at 1:16 pm ET
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FOXBORO — The Patriots held their final practice before the bye on Tuesday in full pads on the upper grass fields outside Gillette.

Steve Gregory, Brandon Bolden and Austin Collie were the only players on the current roster not spotted. Gregory and Bolden were reportedly nursing injuries while Collie was reportedly released after injuring his knee during the win over the Steelers on Sunday.

Gregory suffered a hand injury that reportedly resulted in a broken thumb while Bolden has been nursing a knee injury all season.

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Patriots practice Wednesday: Danny Amendola (concussion), Aqib Talib (hip) in attendance 10.23.13 at 11:13 am ET
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Danny Amendola. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)

Danny Amendola. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)

FOXBORO — Danny Amendola returned to practice Wednesday on the grass fields outside Gillette Stadium for the first time since sustaining a concussion on Oct. 13 against the Saints.

He suffered a viscous hit to the helmet from New Orleans safety Rafael Bush in the second half and missed all of last week, including the game against the Jets.

Asked specifically about whether Amendola has passed all concussion protocols as mandated by the NFL, Bill Belichick said, “every player has to go through medical clearance. Every player has to go through whatever the medical procedures are. We’ll give our practice report after practice like we always do.”

Also in attendance for the full pads practice was Aqib Talib, as he tries to make his way back from a hip injury against the Saints. However, Talib was not wearing pads under his game pants and appeared very limited in stretching exercises for the second straight practice. After missing last Wednesday and Thursday, Talib was at practice on Friday but was listed as doubtful and ruled out Saturday night by the team.

The only two players not spotted Wednesday were running back Leon Washington (ankle) and defensive lineman Tommy Kelly (knee). Washington and Kelly were both injured on Oct. 6 in Cincinnati and have missed the last two games.

Brandon Spikes and Brandon Bolden both spent time on exercise bikes during positional drills at the start of practice.

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Patriots ground game won’t run from challenge presented by Jets’ front seven 10.16.13 at 5:24 pm ET
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Stevan Ridley will lead the Patriots ground game against the Jets Sunday. (AP)

Stevan Ridley will lead the Patriots ground game against the Jets Sunday. (AP)

FOXBORO — Few teams have seen more of a dramatic statistical turnaround from one season to the next than the Jets and their run defense.

In 2012, New York was one of the worst teams in the league when it came to stopping the run — the Jets yielded an average of 133.6 rushing yards per game, 26th in the league. This year, through six games, that number has dropped to 75.7 rushing yards per game, second in the NFL. That includes holding the Patriots to a season-low 54 yards in their September meeting — the one game New England won this season while running for less than 100 yards as a team.

Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson (6-foot-4, 315 pounds), nose tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison (6-foot-4, 350 pounds) and rookie Sheldon Richardson (6-foot-2, 294 pounds) have helped create one of the more underrated defensive fronts in the league, and create a sizable challenge for the New England running game this week.

“I think we’ve got an outstanding group in the front seven,” said Jets coach Rex Ryan. “They’re young, and they’re kind of maturing together. It starts with Muhammad Wilkerson and then the nose tackles, obviously ‘Snacks’ – Damon Harrison – and Kenrick Ellis have done a good job for us, and Sheldon Richardson, so all the big guys up front have done a decent job in the run, and then I think we’ve got as good a middle linebacker as there is in the league in David Harris. I think he’s done an outstanding job for us.”

“They’re all pretty big, physical guys,” said quarterback Tom Brady on New York, which allows a league-low three yards per carry. “They have some really good players over there, especially in the front. [They have] good run technique, and certainly a lot of their scheme is built to stop the run.”

One of the keys to the Jets success against the run is their good numbers on first down. Through the first six games, New York is best in the league when it comes to first-down defense, allowing an average of 3.41 yards per play on first down. They’ve faced 158 first downs, and allowed 538 yards. (By way of comparison, Cleveland is second at 3.74 yards per play on first down. The league average is 5.48, and the Patriots are 27th overall, yielding an average of 6.12 yards on first down.)

Their successes on first down create a domino effect for the rest of the defense. A run of three yards or less on first down creates second-and-long situations, and that certainly isn’t a running play. With the defense aware that they’ve likely made you a one-dimensional team, they’re free to unleash blitz packages — a Ryan favorite.

“[That] leads to second-and-longs and third-and-longs, and then they get their blitz packages going,” Brady said. “You can’t really fall asleep at any point against this defense because they have a lot of negative plays in the run game.”

Success in the running game for the Patriots will likely hinge on limiting those negative plays, particularly early on. New England has run 430 offensive plays this year in six games — not counting kneeldowns, 33 have been for negative yardage. (That’s up from 26 negative plays from scrimmage through the first six games of the 2012 season.) Of the 83 plays on Sunday against the Saints, a season-high 10 went for negative yardage — five sacks of Brady as well as two negative runs by LeGarrette Blount, one negative run each from Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley, and a negative reception from Danny Amendola.

The Patriots could also use the aggressive nature of the Jets defensive front to their advantage by ratcheting up their play-action game. The quickest way to get a defense on its heels would be through multiple play fakes, something New England has used with success in the past. There’s also the possibility of utilizing screens, fakes and draw plays.

Ultimately, over the first six games of the year, while the numbers in the passing game have fluctuated wildly for New England, a fairly reliable barometer of their success can be seen in their ability to run the ball. Ridley, Blount, Bolden and Shane Vereen have all provided support over the course of the season as the Patriots have averaged 120.5 rushing yards per game, good for 11th in the league, and the Patriots are 4-0 when they top 100 yards on the ground. If they want to get to 6-1 on the season, chances are good they’ll have to get a steady and consistent performance out of their ground game on Sunday in New Jersey.

“They’re a really good first-down defense. They usually put a lot of people in second-and-long yardage. It’s one of the things we have to prevent. It’s one of the things that we have to make sure that doesn’t happen to us too often,” Blount said. “They’re doing something right — they’re ranked in the Top 5 in the league in rush defense. They’re dong something right. But we’re going to continue to look at film and hopefully find some things that they’re not doing as well and we can exploit them.”

Read More: Brandon Bolden, LeGarrette Blount, Rex Ryan, Shane Vereen Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
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