Editor’s note: NESN.com will go position by position to break down the Patriots’ depth chart heading into the 2015 offseason. Next up: the running backs.
The New England Patriots are very fortunate that LeGarrette Blount decided to walk out on the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The story is well told by now: Blount walked off the field prematurely during the Steelers’ Week 11 win, Pittsburgh cut the veteran running back, and the Patriots signed him once he cleared waivers. The smartest thing the Patriots did was lock him up for two years, rather than giving him a one-year deal.
Now the Patriots have insurance if they can’t bring back one or both of their free-agent running backs. Let’s take a look at how the Patriots might handle the position this offseason:
2015 DEPTH CHART: LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, Jonas Gray, James White, Tyler Gaffney, Dion Lewis
2015 FREE AGENTS: Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, James Develin (exclusive rights)
Ridley went into the season as the starter, then he tore his ACL in Week 6 against the Buffalo Bills. Blount actually finished the 2013 season as the Patriots’ starter over Ridley, however, which lessens the need to bring back the 2011 third-round draft pick.
Because of Ridley’s injury and subsequent surgery, he likely will command a small one-year “prove it” deal in free agency. Despite his possible low cost, it’s doubtful that he’ll be back with the Patriots, especially since they have “bell cow” insurance in Bolden, Gray and Gaffney.
The Patriots claimed Gaffney off waivers from the Panthers over the summer when Carolina tried to sneak the 2014 sixth-round draft pick through to injured reserve after he suffered a lateral meniscus tear. Gaffney spent most of the season in Foxboro learning the Patriots’ ways, and he’s a candidate to earn a role next season.
The 6-foot, 220-pound back rushed for 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns on 330 carries in 2013 as a senior at Stanford. He also caught 15 passes for 86 yards. He has ideal speed (4.49-second 40-yard dash) and agility (6.78-second 3-cone drill).
The Patriots would love to have Vereen back, because he’s such an important, dependable and versatile piece in their offense, but they’ll have to be willing to spend more than they did for Blount or than they’ll have to for Ridley.
Vereen caught 52 passes for 447 yards with three touchdowns during the regular season and rushed for 391 yards on 96 carries with two touchdowns. He caught 18 passes in three playoff games this season for 144 yards and rushed six times for 21 yards.
Vereen doesn’t have upside as an every-down back, because of his inability to consistently break tackles, but he’s one of the most versatile third-down backs in the NFL. He can line up anywhere, including split out at wide receiver.
Because of Vereen’s unique role, it’s hard to pinpoint what type of contract he’s set to earn. He probably has more value to the Patriots than any other team, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t be appealing on the open market.
The closest comparisons to Vereen on long-term deals are two San Diego Chargers running backs.
Donald Brown signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract after rushing for 537 yards on 102 carries while catching 27 passes for 214 yards with eight total touchdowns in 2013. Brown is a more suitable early-down rusher, but he’s not as valuable in the passing game.
Danny Woodhead signed a two-year, $3.5 million contract as a free agent in 2013 after rushing for 301 yards on 76 carries and four touchdowns and catching 40 passes for 446 yards with three touchdowns in 2012 with the Patriots. He then signed a two-year, $5.5 million extension after rushing for 429 yards on 106 carries and catching 76 passes for 605 yards with eight total touchdowns in 2014.
Woodhead, 30, and Brown, 27, also are older than Vereen, 25, which ups the free agent’s value.
The Patriots must be willing to give Vereen around $3 million per season, and they have to decide how big of an upgrade he is over James White, who they selected in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft. White essentially redshirted his rookie season, playing in just three games, rushing for 38 yards on nine carries and catching five passes for 23 yards. He has a similar skill-set to Vereen’s: a great receiver who won’t offer much value rushing between the tackles.
It also would be cheaper for the Patriots to draft another running back in the second or third round of the 2015 NFL draft to replace Vereen. This is a deep class for running backs.
Whether the Patriots bring back Vereen or not might depend solely on how confident they are in White. The third-down running back plays a very important role in the Patriots’ offense, and while White drew rave reviews from his teammates and coaches during training camp, his lack of playing time as a rookie was concerning.
Of course, Vereen only received 15 touches as a rookie and saw a major uptick in playing time as a second-year player. The Patriots still had Woodhead to share the role, however.
Lewis has upside as a third-down back future signing, but he hasn’t done much in the NFL since being selected in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL draft. The Patriots did get value out of a 2014 future signing in Gray.
Re-signing fullback James Develin won’t be an issue, since he’s an exclusive rights free agent.
Check out the rest of our position outlooks: Quarterbacks
Thumbnail photo via Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
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