Stevan Ridley proved that he could be a 1,000-yard running back in 2012, but dependability is key at his position, and the fourth-year pro showed he couldn’t be counted on last season.
Ridley lost his starting role to LeGarrette Blount after fumbling in three consecutive games midway through the 2013 season. Head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots refused to pay Blount in free agency this offseason, so Ridley has the reins to the starting role once again. The Patriots will need a dependable backup behind him, however, and they have two intriguing rookie options.
Patriots roster spots and starting roles are up for grabs, and as training camp nears, NESN.com will review the team’s biggest battles. This week, we’re covering the backup running back role.
Belichick compared the Wisconsin product to Shane Vereen, which led some to believe that White will be more of a fixture on third downs than on first and second. That might be true, but White also proved capable of carrying the load during his time with the Badgers.
White isn’t a bruiser like Ridley or Blount, but he wasn’t afraid to run through the middle of the defense. White gains yards by getting skinny through holes and by using an effective stutter step to make defenders miss.
White didn’t test out extraordinarily well at the NFL Scouting Combine, running a 4.57-second 40-yard dash, 7.05-second three-cone and 4.20-second short shuttle, but he proved to have game-breaking speed at Wisconsin, able to cruise past defenders for long runs of 93, 70, 59, 51 and 49 yards. White showed off his second gear in 2012 against Minnesota.
White has the shiftiness, patience and field vision to run between the tackles, but at 5-foot-9, 206 pounds, he lacks the strength to power through defenders, which could limit his ability to be an every-down back. White frequently goes down at first contact.
The 2013 fourth-round draft pick has exceptional receiving and blocking skills, which certainly will come in handy on third down. It also could help him find the field on first and second down in obvious passing situations.
Houston, an undrafted rookie out of Indiana, doesn’t have much in common with White. Houston is a bruiser in the mold of Ridley and Blount at 6-foot, 230 pounds, and what he lacks in shiftiness, he more than makes up for in power. Houston initiates contact with defenders and rarely immediately goes down at first contact.
Houston’s a downhill runner, but he doesn’t have the speed or shiftiness to make long runs into big plays. When he gains steam, however, he can be difficult to bring down.
Houston has the potential to be an effective goal-line back, but he’ll need to work on his field vision and on keeping his pad level down. Houston was stuffed at the goal line three times by Bowling Green last September. Indiana turned the ball over on downs on this drive because Houston couldn’t find the end zone.
If Ridley’s fumbling issues persist, the Patriots could turn to Vereen or Brandon Bolden to carry the load as the bell cow running back, but if they have to use a rookie, White appears to be the best option, though Houston has tons of potential.
Belichick made Blount a much better short-yardage back in 2013, and he could do the same with Houston if he can teach him to gain some patience and keep his shoulder down. Houston has plenty of strength and explosion, and he’s the closest thing the Patriots have to Ridley on the roster.
White will be a fantastic backup to Vereen on third downs, and his field vision, patience and shiftiness should allow him to find some space when asked to run between the tackles. White could afford to bulk up to improve his yards after contact.