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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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Stevan Ridley: Darrelle Revis ‘can lock down one side of the field for us’ 03.13.14 at 1:37 pm ET
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Stevan Ridley

Stevan Ridley

Patriots running back Stevan Ridley was on NFL AM on the “NFL Network” Thursday morning, and talked about the departure of Aqib Talib, the acquisition of Darrelle Revis, as well as his own future.

On how much better cornerback Darrelle Revis makes the Patriots: “€œI think he does what [Aqib] Talib did for us. Talib is an awesome player and to let him go for the betterment of him and his family, he had a big offer on the table. He had to take it. But coach [Bill] Belichick always comes through, he always has a backup plan and to pick up Darrelle Revis, that was one of the only corners I heard about coming up as a kid and watching football. He’€™s been around a long time and he knows what he’€™s doing. I think he can lock down one side of the field for us and do everything that we need him to do as a player. So to come in on a one-year deal, he’€™s going to have to earn it but I think he’€™s done that year after year. We’€™re going to be OK.”

On if he expects a rematch of the AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and the Broncos with all of the free agent moves Denver has made so far: “€œI can’€™t get too far ahead of myself. It’€™s going to take some work to get there but of course Denver is making major moves; they’€™ve signed some big names and made some great additions to their team, with Talib first. But for us, we’€™re going to have to play to get there. Once we get there, we know what we’€™re matched up against. They had a spectacular defense at the end of the year last year and they didn’€™t make any mistakes by picking up a few free agents to add to their dominance that helped them get to the Super Bowl.”
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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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Stevan Ridley docked $5,250 for wearing red shoes 01.17.14 at 6:08 pm ET
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Stevan Ridley was high-stepping to two touchdowns last Saturday against the Colts. (AP)

Stevan Ridley was high-stepping to two touchdowns last Saturday against the Colts. (AP)

FOXBORO — Before leaving on a cross-country trip to play in the AFC championship game, running back Stevan Ridley was informed by the NFL that his decision to wear red shoes in last Saturday’s 43-22 win over the Colts resulted in a fine of $5,250.

If wearing red shoes results in running for a pair of touchdowns in the playoffs, Ridley would likely gladly pay the fine every week.

But there’s another angle at play. Brandon Spikes was placed on season-ending injured reserve the Monday before the playoff game against the Colts, allegedly in part because he was late for a team meeting the previous Friday. Spikes was fined over $18,000 over two games for wearing his red cleats.

The NFL uniform code prohibits players from wearing cleats of a different color than the rest of his team.

The late L.C. Greenwood, with his gold-colored high heels, would stand up and applaud both Spikes and Ridley.

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Tom Brady on D&C: ‘It would be as satisfying a victory as we’ve ever had to go to Denver and win this game’ 01.13.14 at 10:27 am ET
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Tom Brady has led the Patriots to the AFC championship game for the third consecutive year. (AP)

Tom Brady has led the Patriots to the AFC championship game for the third consecutive year. (AP)

With the Patriots and Broncos set for an AFC championship game matchup Sunday, quarterback Tom Brady made his weekly appearance on Dennis & Callahan to preview the game and recap Saturday night’s victory over the Colts. To hear the interview, go to the Dennis & Callahan audio on demand page.

The Patriots relied on a strong ground game to defeat the Colts, rushing for 234 yards and six touchdowns.

“That’s been one of our strengths here for the last six weeks, is our ability to run it,” Brady said. “I think our offensive line, the way they’ve played down the stretch has been incredible. And certainly with LeGarrette [Blount], Stevan [Ridley] and Shane [Vereen] and what they’ve done, it’s been really just huge for our team. That’s going to be a part of every game plan, and then when we got out there and we started to really become more efficient in the running game we just kept running it and running it. Then you get those big long runs where LeGarrette broke out and ran for whatever, 70-plus yards.

“It’s been just a great thing for us, to be able to control the tempo of the game. To really be a physical football team is what coach [Bill] Belichick has talked about all year. That’s really come out here really since Thanksgiving.”

Added Brady: “Over the last month we’ve been exceptional in our efficiency. All of the backs are running hard. Like I said, it starts with the offensive line and what they’ve been able to do and what they’ve been able to contribute. I know how satisfying it is for them. When you talk about rushing stats at the end of the year and where our team stands, it’s very gratifying when you’re able to run the ball like we’ve run it. Like I said, the backs do a great job finding the hole and finding what’s there, they’re running really hard, they break tackles. But the offensive line gets those guys started. They deserve so much credit.”

With the emphasis on the running game, the offensive lineman have had a chance to go on the offensive.

“It’s nice to be, for an offensive lineman, for you to be able to be aggressive,” Brady said. “Rather than, when you pass it all day, you’re really just trying to defend the spot. As a run blocker you can really enforce your will upon the other team. That’s where the basic fundamentals of football will never change: You’ve got to be able to stop the run; you’ve got to be able to run the football. Those things don’t ever change. That’s how you get to this point in the year. You’ve got to be able to win different ways, and certainly the way we’ve been able to win for a while now has been critical to our success.”

The Patriots rallied to defeat the Broncos, 34-31, in overtime on Nov. 24, but Brady put little emphasis on that game.

“There’s nothing that’s happened in the past that’s going to help us try to win this game on Sunday,” Brady said. “This game is going to come down to who plays the best. We’ll be able to take some things from the game we played and study them and prepare for them. But we’ll have different things to do, they’ll have different things to do. Their team is different than from when they played us, and we’re pretty different from when we played them.

“We’ll get our preparation going this morning and try to put together a great game plan and prepare as hard as we can, and then go out there and you let it rip. I’m excited. It’s everything you could ask for as an athlete. We’ve got a great opportunity ahead of us. It would be as satisfying a victory as we’ve ever had to go to Denver and win this game.”

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After an up-and-down season, these 5 Patriots could be critical to postseason success 01.08.14 at 12:24 am ET
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Dont'a Hightower needs to have a big postseason. (AP)

Linebacker Dont’a Hightower needs to have a big postseason. (AP)

Heading into the postseason, the Patriots have their acknowledged core on both sides of the ball. At the same time, there are a handful of players who have had an up-and-down year but remain vital to the success of the team going into the postseason. For myriad reasons — personnel, scheme, lack of depth, or all of the above — they will get extensive playing time in the playoffs, and if they step up their games the Patriots could end up going deep into the postseason.

Linebacker Dont’€™a Hightower

The second-year linebacker out of Alabama has had an up-and-down season. There have been times this year where he’€™s looked very impressive, a singular member of an above-average corps of linebackers. But in the weeks after Jerod Mayo went down with a season-ending injury, Hightower appeared to have more responsibility placed on his shoulders, and it looked like he struggled while making the transition from complementary part of the defense to leader and key figure. He admitted Tuesday that there were times this year where he tried to do too much, and had problems finding the balance between “doing your job” and trying to do too much when it came to replacing Mayo. He said Tuesday he’€™s now been able to dial back to a point where he needs to be. (The numbers certainly bear that out — the analytical web site Pro Football Focus graded him positively over the final four games of the season, and he has a combined 27 tackles in the last three contests.) Going into the postseason, he’€™ll have to take more of a leadership role — particularly when it comes to working with rookie linebacker Jamie Collins — and he’€™ll be asked to do more from a practical perspective as well, working with Collins and Dane Fletcher as the Patriots try and replicate the production of Brandon Spikes, who was placed on season-ending injured reserve earlier this month. How he handles those increased responsibilities this time around will likely play a large role in how successful the New England defense is in the postseason.

Wide receiver Danny Amendola

Amendola has had plenty of good moments over the course of his first season in New England — in 12 games, he finished with 54 catches for 633 yards and two touchdowns. That included two games where he had 10 catches, one against the Bills in the season opener and the second in a December loss to the Dolphins in Miami. (He was particularly impressive in both, but he just missed coming down with what would have been the game-winner late in the defeat against the Dolphins.) Nice numbers, but at the same time, there were plenty of occasions where he seemed to fall off the radar screen. That included five games where he had three or fewer catches. The Patriots passing game has become reliant on the work of Julian Edelman — if Amendola can gain some separation in the postseason, he could serve as a complementary element to Edelman and open up a whole new option in the passing game for Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Running back Stevan Ridley

At this point, Ridley’€™s ball security issues are well documented. Coming off a season where he rushed for 1,263 yards, he had problems hanging on to the ball right out of the gate, and things reached a low point for the LSU product in December when he was a healthy scratch for a Patriots’€™ win over the Texans. Since that point, Ridley has slowly been re-integrated into the game plan to the point where he had 21 snaps a game in the final two regular season contests, and averaged 64 yards per game in that stretch. While he may have lost his job as the lead back — it’€™s hard to argue with the production displayed by LeGarrette Blount over the last half of the season — he still figures to be a key part of the running game heading into the postseason as New England aims for an NFL trick that hasn’€™t been pulled off since the Reagan Administration.

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