As training camp starts up in just two days, we may see some new, interesting wrinkles out on the offensive side of the ball.
Bill Belichick likes to take a “best 11 players” approach to both the offense and defense. He’ll start a player even if not at his best position to ensure that he is still on the field. We have seen this on defense the past two years.
Rob Ninkovich played two entirely different positions in Belichick’s 4-3 defense in 2011 and 2012. He played strong-side linebacker (probably his more natural position) in 2011, then the Patriots drafted Dont’a Hightower in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft. Rather than keeping either player on the bench, Belichick got creative by moving Ninkovich to strong-side defensive end. It’s not Ninkovich’s best position, but if he’s one of the best 11 players for a situation on defense, he should be in the game.
There’s a growing feeling that the Patriots will do something similar with Shane Vereen on offense. Vereen played some wide receiver last season and could have that role increase with Aaron Hernandez in Bristol County Correctional Facility.
Vereen is naturally a third-down running back. He can play some every-down back, and he can play some wideout. We’ll likely see all three roles out of the California product this season.
If Belichick determines Vereen is one of the best 11 players the team has on offense, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibilities to see him take on a hybrid starting role. He could still retain third-down back duties, but he could be the piece that keeps defenses on their toes. Everyone expects Vereen to be Danny Woodhead or Kevin Faulk, but Vereen’s skill set will allow him to expand on that classic chess piece within the Patriots offense (while all three players’ height would suggest they are pawns, I would argue they’re bishops).
This would force the Patriots to put Vereen and Stevan Ridley on the field at the same time — something they did very rarely last season. They only used Ridley with either Vereen or Woodhead four times, according to some research by Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus. They used Ridley and Vereen together on three plays and Ridley and Woodhead together on one. They also used Vereen and Woodhead together on four plays and Ridley and Brandon Bolden on one play.
Of course, just because the Patriots have rarely done it in the past doesn’t mean they won’t do it in 2013. Having two running backs on the field at the same time wouldn’t be as effective as two tight ends together to confuse defenses, but it would up the element of surprise over having three wide receivers. Defenses would still have to determine if they were running a base or nickel defense against that set of players, meaning they would have to choose between covering Vereen with a linebacker or defensive back.
We’ll know more about the role Vereen is taking on once training camp starts. The team hasn’t practiced since Hernandez was arrested and subsequently cut. So the last time we saw the Patriots on the field, the offense was looking pretty standard with two tight ends, two wide receivers and a running back on the field.
If Vereen is taking snaps at wide receiver, we’ll know that’s part of the team’s plans. If he’s taking snaps on the first team at wide receiver, it will be even more telling.
Vereen certainly has the talent, speed and hands to play wideout, but what remains to be seen is how strong his route-running skills will be at a new position. While Vereen is almost certainly one of the best 11 players on the Patriots’ offense, that won’t matter if he simply can’t take on the duties of the position.
But while most young players have difficulty picking up the nuances of playing wideout in New England, another player had no problem switching positions to line up out wide. Edelman is just one of two rookie wide receivers during the Belichick era to catch more than 20 passes in a season. That’s even more impressive knowing Edelman played quarterback in college.
Vereen wasn’t a quarterback at Cal, but he has the smarts of one. When speaking to Vereen, it’s obvious the shifty running back is intelligent. If anyone could handle the duties of learning two positions, it’s the Berkeley graduate.
There are multiple ways the Patriots could replace Hernandez in the offense. They could use a third wide receiver (likely Edelman), another tight end or a second running back. If the rookie wide receivers don’t emerge and the team wants to take a “best 11 players” approach, Vereen could very well be their guy.
Each day this week we are going to feature a different player to watch during training camp. Check out the schedule below.
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