It’s officially the year of the youth movement at running back for the New England Patriots.
For a position that’s usually featured reliable but aging veterans, this season should be a breath of fresh air.
Second-year man Stevan Ridley appears poised to be the lead back now that BenJarvus Green-Ellis is in Cincinnati.
Although “The Law Firm” never put the ball on the ground, he also lacked dynamic playmaking ability at a premium spot, making him expendable now that the Pats have re-stocked the position over the past year.
In fact, Bill Belichick devoted two high draft picks on running backs in 2011, selecting Shane Vereen with the 56th overall pick before taking Ridley at 73.
Surprisingly, Ridley has grasped the starting spot, displaying a burst uncharacteristic of a player who many draft experts pegged as a possible fullback.
Because of his size (5’11”, 220 pounds) and slashing style, Ridley offers a more dynamic skill set than his predecessor and could quickly develop into a quality NFL starter.
While Ridley quickly asserted himself as a NFL-caliber starter, Shane Vereen’s struggled to make an impact despite his draft pedigree.
The former second-round pick basically redshirted his rookie season after dealing with a nagging hamstring injury, and although he looked decent in preseason action, he’s once again dealing with another injury.
For a player who was heralded for his speed and cutting ability, I didn’t see elite quickness from Vereen in the preseason.
Considering his draft status, it would be a disappointment if he didn’t at least contribute on third downs, but at this point the jury is still out on the former California Golden Bear.
For a team that once carried Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk on the same roster, it’s funny to think Danny Woodhead is the veteran of this year’s group.
The diminutive fifth-year pro provided a sparkplug in 2010 before fizzling out a bit in 2011.
Woodhead makes his money as a pass-catching back who utilizes his elite quickness to make defenders miss. However, his size limitations and lack of power negate his ability to be a true contributor between the tackles.
With Green-Ellis gone, the Patriots may have found his replacement in fellow Ole Miss alum Brandon Bolden.
Checking in at 5’11”, 220 pounds, Bolden is a one-cut runner who exhibits good power through contact. He struggled mightily as a punt returner and probably won’t be used in the passing game.
It’ll be interesting to see whether he garners any goal-line snaps as his size could be an asset.
Unfortunately for Patriots fans seeking an Olympic performance, running back Jeff Demps won’t be on the field till 2013. The team placed him on injured reserve after suffering a bone bruise.
The former Florida Gator and Olympic track star possesses game-changing speed and could be the team’s starting kick returner in 2013.
Overall, the running back group certainly isn’t elite, but there’spromise. Ridley should be an above-average starter and should finish with over 800 yards and eight scores.
Hopefully Vereen gets healthy before he gets lost in the mix, otherwise he’ll be squarely on the roster bubble next season.
With an offense predicated on the tight ends and Wes Welker, the running game just needs to be efficient when called upon, and with Ridley leading the way, it should be solid enough in 2012.