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5 looming positional battles for Patriots 06.08.15 at 9:59 pm ET
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New Patriot Travaris Cadet could have the inside track for the job of third-down back. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

New Patriot Travaris Cadet could have the inside track for the job of third-down back. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The 2015 Patriots roster is starting to come into sharper focus, and as a result, there are some positional battles starting to take shape. With the understanding that there’s a lot of football left before the start of training camp at the end of July, here are four positions that bear watching as New England’s mandatory minicamp approaches later this month and camp begins in July.

Backup outside linebacker/defensive end: This spot demands some versatility in that defenders have to show an ability to not just get after the quarterback and set the edge, but also play over a tight end and drop into coverage from time to time. There are a bunch of different possibilities when it comes to working behind the likes of expected starters Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones that one of the candidates — Jake Bequette — has apparently spent some of the spring working at tight end in an attempt to get on the field. Opponent, situation and scheme will all play a sizable role as to who is on the field, and while free-agent pickup Jabaal Sheard probably shouldn’t necessarily be labeled as a backup, he will augment the work of Jones and Ninkovich. Sheard will lead a group that includes returnee Zach Moore (more of a defensive end/pass rush type than an outside linebacker, as well as rookies Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom and Xzavier Dickson.

Backup inside/middle linebacker: The release of Brandon Spikes on Monday creates a void at the linebacker spot for New England. While Spikes wasn’t going to unseat any of the three long-term starters (Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower) for work as a three-down linebacker, his run-stuffing ability made him a good situational option on first and second downs. With Hightower’s offseason shoulder surgery leaving him a question mark when it comes to participating over the summer, the Patriots could still try and add someone at the spot. If not, the return of Dane Fletcher creates some depth at the position, and is likely the favorite to see the bulk of the playing time, at least at this point. In addition, James Morris (who was on the shelf all last season with a leg injury) will compete for reps alongside youngster Chris White and rookie Matt Wells.

Third-down back: The Patriots lost one of their most impressive offensive options to free agency this offseason, as Shane Vereen signed with the Giants. However, New England hasn’t been shy about turnover at this spot the last few years, as Kevin Faulk have way to Danny Woodhead, who yielded to Vereen. Now, it’ll be next man up here, and there are plenty of possibilities. The Patriots acquired Travaris Cadet in free agency — the 26-year-old had 38 catches last season out of the backfield with the Saints, and could be the early favorite to win the gig. Cadet will have his challengers, however, with one of them likely being second-year pro James White. White, who fundamentally took a redshirt year last season while sitting behind Vereen and the rest of the backs, has an impressive college resume at Wisconsin (he had 39 catches as a senior, and 73 total as a collegian), and certainly possesses the same sort of size and shiftiness as Vereen. While Brandon Bolden, Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount have shown a willingness to catch passes out of the backfield, the wild card here is likely Tyler Gaffney, a 6-foot-1, 221-pounder who was swiped from the Panthers off waivers and spent the whole season on IR because of a knee issue. The Stanford product caught 27 passes his last two seasons at Stanford, and could be part of the conversation as the summer continues.

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Read More: Cameron Fleming, chandler jones, Dan Connolly, Dane Fletcher
Shane Vereen: ‘I have the utmost respect for [Tom Brady] as a player and as a person’ 05.28.15 at 10:23 am ET
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Another player is showing their support for Tom Brady.

Even though running back Shane Vereen is now a member of the Giants, the former Patriot is coming out in defense of his former quarterback. Vereen said he had no knowledge of the Patriots’ footballs being deflated.

“I had no awareness of anything that was going on,” Vereen said to the New York Daily News Wednesday. “€œI looked up to Tom. I still do. I think he’€™s a great player. I have the utmost respect for him as a player and as a person. I guess everything will sort itself out.”

Vereen said Brady was one of the first players to reach out to him after he signed with the Giants for three years and just over $12 million.

In regards to Deflategate, some have noted the Patriots’ fumble numbers as they are among the lowest in the league. Vereen said that is a byproduct of hard work in practice.

“We work very hard at our craft,” Vereen said. “We work very hard at holding onto the ball. We did ball drills every day, and I think that’€™s more a product of us and our hard work.”

For more Patriots news, visit weei.com/patriots.

Read More: Shane Vereen,
Resetting Patriots depth chart: Running back 04.14.15 at 8:05 am ET
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Jonas Gray could have a bigger workload in 2015. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Jonas Gray could have a bigger workload in 2015. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

With the majority of free agency completed and the draft looming, we’re going to take a look at the Patriots depth chart by position, and try and assess the level of need going forward. We started with special teams, tight end and wide receiver. Now, it’s running back:

Current depth chart: LeGarrette Blount (60 carries, 281 yards, 3 TDs), Jonas Gray (89 carries, 412 yards, 5 TDs), Brandon Bolden (28 carries, 89 yards, 1 TD), Travaris Cadet, James White (9 carries, 38 yards), Dion Lewis, James Develin (3 carries, 5 yards), Tyler Gaffney (ended season on injured reserve).

Lost in free agency: Stevan Ridley (94 carries, 340 yards, 2 TDs) signed with the Jets, Shane Vereen (96 carries, 391 rushing yards, 2 TDs; 52 catches, 447 receiving yards, 3 TDs) signed with the Giants.

Gained in free agency: Cadet (10 carries, 32 yards; 31 catches, 51 targets, 296 yards, 1 TD for the Saints last year), Lewis (no stats last year with the Browns, but his best season came in 2011 with the Eagles when he had 23 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown).

Other changes: There’s been plenty of turnover at the position this offseason for New England, as the Patriots have lost 43 percent of their carries from 2014 with the departures of Ridley and Vereen. But that’s pretty much par for the course when it comes to the Patriots and the running back position: over the last 10 years, six different backs have led New England 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.) One other note as it relates to change in the New England backfield: Tyler Gaffney was swiped off waivers from the Panthers last summer and stashed on injured reserve because of a knee injury. The former Stanford product bears watching for a few reasons throughout the spring workouts for a few reasons, including the fact that the 6-foot-1, 221-pounder rushed for 1,709 yards on 330 carries as a senior in college in 2013. (He also had 27 catches out of the backfield in his final two years at Stanford.) Given those numbers, it’s reasonable to think that he’ll at least be a part of the conversation when it comes to the position this summer.

Is this an area of need going into the draft? Not on the surface, but there is some pre-draft talk that if one of the two backs considered to be head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field (Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Georgia’s Todd Gurley) are available at No. 32, the Patriots would be inclined to go after them at the end of the first round. It certainly would be out of character for New England, as Bill Belichick has taken a running back just once in the first round (Laurence Maroney, 2006). If they don’t go for a back at the end of the first round, look for them to pick up at least one somewhere along the way, even as a camp body or two via the undrafted/rookie free agent route to help fill out the roster.

Read More: Bill Belichick, Dion Lewis, James White, Jonas Gray
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
League outlaws Patriots unbalanced line approach that New England used against Ravens 03.25.15 at 1:59 pm ET
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John Harbaugh and the Ravens are likely pretty happy after hearing that the unbalanced line the Patriots used in the playoffs is now illegal. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

John Harbaugh and the Ravens are likely pretty happy after hearing that the unbalanced line the Patriots used in the playoffs is now illegal. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The eligible receiver/ unbalanced line tactics the Patriots utilized in the AFC divisional playoff game agains the Ravens have now been ruled illegal. The league announced Wednesday that they have passed a proposal to make it  “illegal for an offensive player with an eligible number to report as ineligible and line up outside the core of the formation.”

The genesis of the rule change came from the postseason contest between New England and Baltimore when Patriots ran a handful of plays using four offensive linemen and a running back (Shane Vereen) or tight end (Michael Hoomanawanui) lined up as the tackle. Before the plays, the Patriots informed the referee of the ineligible player, and on at least one occasion, the referee announced to the crowd that No. 34 (Vereen) was ineligible, adding “don’t cover (Vereen).”

The Ravens were clearly steamed at the legal sequence after the game. Ravens coach John Harbaugh called it “deception,” and took issue with the idea that “they don’t give you the chance to make the proper substations and things like that.”

He added: “We wanted an opportunity to be able to ID who the eligible players were. What (the Patriots) were doing was they announce the ineligible player and then Tom [Brady] would take them to the line right away and snap the ball before we had a chance to figure out who was lined up where. That was the deception part of it. It was clearly deception.”

In the midst of the confusion, the Patriots were able to capitalize — on three plays, New England hit on pass plays of 16, 11 and 14 yards. While it wasn’t the biggest turning point in the game, it was clear that it contributed to the normally unflappable Ravens coming unglued, as Baltimore twice choked up 14-point leads on the way to the Patriots win.

After the game, Brady was asked about the play.

“Maybe those guys (should) study the rule book and figure it out,” said the quarterback with a smile.

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

Read More: Baltimore Ravens, Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh, New England Patriots
RB Shane Vereen takes to Twitter to thank Patriots fans and clarify ‘step up’ statement 03.12.15 at 1:48 pm ET
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After taking some heat Wednesday night when he said going from the Patriots to the Giants represented a “step up,” running back Shane Vereen took to Twitter Thursday to clarify his statements, say farewell to New England fans, and express his thanks for the support he received in his four years with the Patriots.

Read More: NFL free agency 2015, Shane Vereen,
Shane Vereen: Giants are ‘a step up’ from Patriots 03.11.15 at 10:51 pm ET
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After spending the first four years of his career in New England, running back Shane Vereen signed with the Giants on the first day of free agency on Tuesday.

Vereen did have an interesting quote in a video on the team’s website announcing his signing — a three-year, $12.35 million contract.

“[I made this] decision with my family,” Vereen said. “At the end of the day, I wanted to make a decision that was right for us, right for them, and this is a great organization. I was fortunate enough to play in New England with another great organization. This is not a step down; if anything, it is a step up. I am looking forward to the opportunity, and I am enjoying being in New York.”

The Patriots will face the Giants at MetLife Stadium this year, so Vereen could have provided his former team with some bulletin board material.

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

Read More: NFL free agency 2015, Shane Vereen,
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