The Patriots have had quite a run of third-down backs since Bill Belichick ditched the Jets to take over in New England.
Kevin Faulk, who joined the team as a third-round pick way back in 1999 when the team was still wearing royal blue uniforms and Pete Carroll was roaming the sidelines, was passed down to Belichick. Faulk carved out a steady role with the team, only twice racking up more than 200 touches (2000 and 2003) and just four times piling up more than 100 touches (2000, 2003, 2007, 2008). He only racked up 1,000-plus yards twice (2000 and 2003) and mostly kept a balance between balls he caught and carried.
After Faulk lost a step, Danny Woodhead fell into the Patriots’ lap after being cut by the Jets. He took over what Faulk started in 2007 and 2008 by racking up 342 touches over three seasons with 92 catches and 250 carries (the role of a running back as a pass catcher started to diminish as the Patriots began using more two tight end sets).
Now, Shane Vereen is set to take over the Faulk role. And if the original Faulk was version 1.0, Woodhead was 1.5 and Vereen is set to become 2.0.
And that’s not just because Vereen is taller than his predecessors, though it certainly helps. Woodhead and Faulk were both listed at 5-foot-7 and 5/8 coming out of Chadron State and LSU, respectively. Vereen is more than two inches taller at 5-foot-10 and 1/4. He shares Woodhead and Faulk’s speed and wiggle out of the backfield, but he also offers more as a receiver.
That wasn’t made more evident than in the Patriots’ divisional playoff game against the Texans when Vereen beat Barrett Ruud 33 yards down the sideline for a touchdown. NFL Films captured the moment perfectly. Check out the catch below at the 3:20 mark.
After the play, Tom Brady heads over to running backs coach Ivan Fears and says, ”All week we go, ‘Patience, patience.’ There was no patience. He just ran!”
Vereen explained himself the best he could, “I was too excited.”
Brady wasn’t criticizing the second-year player, though, saying, “I don’t care. That was sweet.”
That’s a classic exchange between two teammates after a big play, but it also shows that Josh McDaniels trusts Vereen to be running option routes split out wide at receiver. Vereen saw he had an eight-year veteran, who only ran a 4.75-second 40-yard dash before his rookie season, covering him. He knew he could beat him deep, so he went for it.
Expect more of that in 2013.
In 2012, Woodhead was targeted 51 times to Vereen’s 19. Out of those targets, Woodhead ran 12 “receiver routes,” as categorized by Pro Football Focus, to Vereen’s six. Woodhead caught seven of those targets on receiver routes for 57 yards with 32 yards coming after the catch. Vereen caught four passes on his receiver routes for 80 yards and a touchdown with 49 yards after catch.
In total, Vereen caught 15 of 19 passes thrown his way for 254 yards and three touchdowns. He had 207 yards after catch and just one drop.
Vereen may not offer the same kind of versatility as Aaron Hernandez, but he could be the prime beneficiary of the released tight end’s playing time. Belichick preaches putting the best 11 players on the field. That could mean seeing Stevan Ridley and Vereen play at the same time.
Like having Hernandez on the field, Ridley and Vereen sharing the gridiron could cause headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Vereen proved it isn’t wise to throw a linebacker on him against the Texans, but sticking an extra defensive back on the field may mean the Patriots will be running wild with either rushing option.
With fewer two-wide receiver sets comes more targets for running backs in general. So, while Vereen had 62 carries to eight receptions in the regular season and Woodhead had 76 carries to 40 catches, expect Vereen’s carries-to-catches ratio to even out more like Faulk’s used to before Gronkowski and Hernandez came along.
Vereen will take on the role of the third-down back, but he’ll also be on the field as a second or third wideout and as a second running back.
Even before the Hernandez situation unfolded, Vereen was expected to have a breakout role in 2013, taking over Woodhead’s role. But with another spot on the offense opened up, Vereen could have as much of an impact on the offense as Ridley or Danny Amendola.
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