NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
The New England Patriots drafted California running back Shane Vereen with the No. 56 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, there was an expectation that he would become an immediate and long-term contributor for their offense.
A quick, elusive runner with good receiving skills, who ran for 2,834 rushing yards over three college seasons, Vereen came into the league projected at least to be a contributing situational back in the NFL.
Just four games into his second season, Vereen is far from being on track to those expectations.
As a rookie, Vereen played in just five games, and had just 15 total carries for 57 yards. In 2012, he was inactive for the season’s first three games.
Vereen finally saw the field on Sunday versus the Buffalo Bills, but received just one carry, on which he did not gain a single yard. His only positive yardage came off of a screen pass on the game’s second play from scrimmage, on which he gained five yards.
While injuries and subpar performances in limited action have kept Vereen off of the field, the Patriots’ other young running backs have stepped up in the first quarter of the season.
Fellow second-year back Stevan Ridley, who was selected later in the same draft as Vereen as the No. 73 overall pick, ranks ninth in the NFL in rushing yards with 339 through four games. What really spells trouble for Vereen’s value to the Patriots, however, is the emergence of undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden.
Following in the footsteps of former Patriots and current Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Bolden was signed by the Patriots out of Ole Miss, and a strong preseason earned him a spot on the team’s final 53-man roster. Now, Bolden should have earned himself a spot in the team’s running back rotation with a 137-yard rushing day versus the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
Ridley should have a firm hold on the Patriots’ role as the featured running back, but the window was wide open following Green-Ellis’ departure for Vereen to step in and become the No. 2 running back in the rotation.
In one game, Bolden may have slammed that window shut.
Through a tremendous second-half offensive performance in which the Patriots scored on seven consecutive possessions, Bolden played a starring role in carrying the offense to victory, making it clear he belongs to remain a part of the Patriots’ running back rotation going forward.
The spot that Bolden should now occupy, however, was the only one remaining for any significant amount of playing time at running back for the Patriots, expect in the event that injuries should occur. Expect Ridley and Bolden, both powerful backs who can handle a bulk load of carries, to split the main load of carries going forward, while veteran Danny Woodhead should continue to hold a role as a third-down back as the team’s best receiving and blocking back.
That leaves Vereen’s potential to ever become a significant contributor in serious question.
His best bet would be if the Patriots decide not to re-sign Danny Woodhead, who is an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of the season, as Vereen’s ability as a pass receiver could enable him to fulfill Woodhead’s as a third-down/situational back. However, if Vereen fails to see any significant playing time in 2012, can the Patriots possibly count on him for an important role going into 2013?
Running back is a position where rookies are expected to contribute immediately, especially when they are selected in the early rounds, so it should not be sugarcoated: the fact that Vereen only has 16 carries and 57 yards through 20 regular-season games he potentially could have played in to start his NFL career is unacceptably low production.
The Patriots will certainly be hoping for a late bloomer out of Vereen, as a team always wants to get production out of a second-round pick. In terms of recent Patriots second-round selections, however, it appears Vereen’s production is more likely to resemble that of Chad Jackson or Darius Butler than it will of Rob Gronkowski or Sebastian Vollmer.
Fortunately for the Patriots, if Bolden ends up becoming a consistently productive running back in their offense, finding an undrafted gem would offset much of the disappointment if Vereen fails to amount to significance in their offense. For Vereen, however, he must find a way to emerge from the shadows in the Patriots’ offense, or the team will move forward without his lack of contribution.