NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
Alabama head football coach Nick Saban once said, “Everything that Bill Belichick does has some purpose.”
That was precisely the case when the New England Patriots selected California running back Shane Vereen at pick 56, then Louisiana State running back Stevan Ridley at pick 73 of the 2011 NFL draft.
Two years later, we now know that double-dipping at halfback was not a redundant move for New England. Both men have served a purpose. Yet thus far, one has gotten more opportunities than the other. That man has been Ridley.
The 5’11”, 220-pound back saw plenty of work as a rookie in 2011. He racked up 441 yards and one score on 87 carries, all while spelling then-Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Despite being put in the proverbial “doghouse” for fumbling issues, Ridley still flashed the explosion to be a home-run hitter.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was Vereen’s rookie campaign. The 5’9”, 205-pounder played in just five games during his first year in Foxboro and netted a modest 57 yards to go with one touchdown. It wasn’t a disaster, although it was far from what you’d hope for out of a second-round pick.
Once 2012 rolled around, the backfield hierarchy was pretty well in order. Green-Ellis had shipped out to the Cincinnati Bengals and Vereen had been held back by injuries.
The No. 1 tailback job was all Ridley’s. And he certainly made the most of it.
The 5’11”, 220-pound Ridley tallied 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns on 290 carries in his first year as starter. His rushing total was good for seventh-most in the league; his rushing touchdown total was tied for third-most. In most circles, those are considered Pro Bowl numbers.
Vereen’s sophomore season was not worthy of Pro Bowl discussion. His slow start got him in a logjam with the shifty Danny Woodhead and undrafted thumper Brandon Bolden. He finished fourth on the team with 251 rushing yards, but he did manage four total touchdowns. The biggest sign of hope for Vereen was his late-season uptick. That was apparent during the AFC Divisional Round playoff game versus the Houston Texans, when he amassed three touchdowns — two via reception.
It’s year three for both draft picks. Expectations are high, and justifiably so. Because Vereen and Ridley were drafted back-to-back, their NFL careers are often compared. That’s not entirely fair, though, as their success comes down to more than statistical measures.
It comes down to utilization.
While they do share a position in title, Vereen and Ridley are vastly different types of players with vastly different skill sets. Vereen runs east to west, but can be a big factor in the receiving game. Ridley runs north to south, but can slash outside and into the open.
If the best of these two worlds could assert themselves as a one-two punch in 2013, then you’re looking at a New England version of “thunder and lightning.” That type of dynamic would certainly make running backs coach Ivan Fears proud.
And right now, all signs point toward that plan coming to fruition.
Vereen is expected to see an expanded role in the offense due to the departure of Woodhead — the team’s third-down back since 2010 — who’s now a San Diego Charger.
The absence of No. 39 leaves a huge void from a versatility perspective, seeing how the Patriots essentially used him like a wide receiver who could take hand-offs. That said, his departure also provides Vereen with an excellent opportunity to secure a steady role in the offense.
Vereen touched on Woodhead’s exodus on May 14, keeping it a team-centric matter (via NESN.com’s Luke Hughes):
“He had a lot of experience. He had a lot of knowledge. He’s a smart player. His role was pretty key to the team. I learned a lot from him. You can’t really replace him. All you can do is move on and hope to get better from there.”
It’s up to Vereen to take what he learned from Woodhead and expound upon it. If he can do so, then expect the 2011 draft picks to work in tandem. This approach would provide the Patriots with a balance of power and elusiveness, even a pass protection game and a receiving game.
For all intents and purposes, this isn’t a “backfield by commitee.” Ridley is the feature back. He’s the one who should garner 20 attempts per game and all the goal line carries. Nonetheless, Vereen’s abilities as a change-of-pace back should coincide with Ridley’s workload. His prowess in the draw game, as well as his personnel mismatch when lined up out wide, help keep defenses on their heels.
No matter how you slice it, Vereen and Ridley will always be linked. They’re good friends and even next-door neighbors. But in all, their implementation in the Patriots’ offense is where they differ.
That’s not a bad thing, it’s a symbiotic one.