With Patriots training camp just over a month away, one of the biggest questions awaiting the defending AFC champions is at running back. Who will step up and become the Patriots' featured back after the departure of BenJarvus Green-Ellis?
Green-Ellis joined the Patriots after going undrafted out of Mississippi in 2008. He left the Patriots this past offseason, signing a three-year deal with the Bengals in March after rushing for 1,675 yards and 24 touchdowns over the past two seasons.
The Patriots will now look to four players — Joseph Addai, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead — to replace Green-Ellis' production. And even though fans may want to see one player emerge as a consistent, every-down back, it's in the Patriots' best interest to use a running back by committee approach.
At this point in their careers, none of the Pats' four main running backs have the skill set to perform as an every-down back. That doesn't mean they can't help the Patriots win — just look at how Darren Sproles helped the Saints last season in a complementary role — but the Patriots would be best served deploying them in different situations.
Addai was the Colts' featured back as a rookie in 2006, but he hasn't been used in that role since 2009. When the Colts drafted Donald Brown that same year, Addai became expendable, and Indianapolis released him in March while they were cutting ties with the Peyton Manning era. Addai averaged just 3.7 yards per carry last year without Manning to ease the pressure in the backfield, and it appears that he's not the same player that found success early in his NFL career. Still, Addai knows how to play in a winning system — Patriots fans may recall his touchdown that sent the Colts to the Super Bowl at the Pats' expense in 2007.
Ridley showed flashes of potential last season, notably rushing 10 times for 97 yards and a touchdown during a Week 4 win at Oakland, but he landed in Bill Belichick's doghouse at the end of the season and did not see action in either the AFC Championship game or the Super Bowl. He started in only one of his three seasons at LSU, and it would be unlikely to see Ridley dropped into the starter's role without more experience at the NFL level.
Vereen, a second-round pick a year ago, saw action in just five games in 2011 after being buried on the depth chart. Like Ridley, he started just one full year in college, mostly due to the fact that he shared the backfield at Cal with Jahvid Best, a first-round draft pick in 2010 now with the Detroit Lions. Vereen could see more playing time this season, but again, the chances of him becoming an every-down back are low.
Woodhead hasn't put up huge numbers in two seasons in New England, but he fits perfectly into the role of backup running back, as teams have to account for him on the ground and on passing routes out of the backfield. Woodhead caught a touchdown in Super Bowl XLVI, and while he'll never be counted on as a full-time starter, Belichick has taken a liking to him and will almost certainly continue to use him in a part-time role.
But just because none of these players are ready to be a full-time running back in 2012 does not mean that the Patriots are in trouble. More and more NFL teams are moving toward a two-back system to keep their backs fresh and limit injuries, and the Patriots have had success with this approach in the past. Even when Green-Ellis was around, he surpassed 200 carries just once with New England. Going back further, the Pats won the Super Bowl in 2003 with Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk splitting time at running back, and they almost made the Super Bowl three years later with Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney sharing the running back duties. The time is right for New England to utilize this approach again.
Addai, Vereen and Woodhead all are capable of catching the ball out of the backfield, so the Patriots may elect to use Ridley as the main ball carrier and bring in another back in passing situations. But really, each back's versatility means that every player can rotate through roles if necessary.
Ultimately, it doesn't really matter who's toting the ball out of the backfield — as long as he doesn't mess up Tom Brady and the Patriots' dynamic passing attack, New England is going to have success. That's why Green-Ellis was so successful in New England — he didn't fumble once in four seasons in Foxborough and allowed Brady to do his thing without seeking the spotlight.
The Pats will be best served using a committee approach in the backfield, but it's going to be the play of Brady and the much-maligned defense that determines whether New England will be able to return to the Super Bowl in 2012.
Photo via Flickr/Beth_Hart