Patriots’ Rookie Running Backs Carry Some Earth, Wind and Fire

The vision and balance of Patriots fourth-round pick James White headlines a rookie running back trio. (USA Today Sports Images)

NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas

The New England Patriots’ offseason roster delves eight deep at the running back position. But even after Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, fullback James Develin and first-year player Jonas Gray, viable competition remains.

It comes in the form of rookies Stephen Houston, James White and Roy Finch.

Only one of whom was selected in May’s draft, yet each of whom carries the serviceability to warrant a 53-man roster selection.

The reality, though, is that not all of whom will. There are only 11 offensive players on the field at a time, and there’s only one football to go around. And given the sheer volume of candidates in New England’s wide-open rushing committee, taking part in both will be a tall order this summer.

Each will have to carve a role.

Based on the ways in which the trio was utilized in college, however, doing so won’t be far outside the realm of possibility.

The 6’0”, 230-pound Houston showcased the ability to convert one-cut speed into power at Indiana. The 5’10”, 195-pound White flexed the vision and balance to make opponents miss in close quarters at Wisconsin. And the 5’6”, 167-pound Finch flashed moments of innovation and explosion in open space at Oklahoma.

It remains to be seen how those traits will adapt in Foxborough. But between them, there’s balance. There’s some earth, wind and fire.

The Earth of Stephen Houston

Houston may not have the road-grading prowess of Brandon Jacobs or the deceptive finesse of LeGarrette Blount, but he possesses the size and burst to hit rush lanes hard.

And after redshirting at Independence Community College in 2009 and crossing the 1,000-yard mark there in 2010, he transitioned that momentum to the FBS level at Indiana.

Houston accounted for 2,304 career rushing yards for the Hoosiers, but he also showed reliable hands out of the backfield and 658 career receiving yards were the byproduct. Over three years and 18 starts, he tallied 29 total touchdowns – sixth-most in Indiana history. Although after his final college campaign closed, the 22-year-old went undrafted and signed with New England as a priority free agent.

While the odds are stacked against Houston, he stands in as the largest halfback on the roster. Adding onto that, he’s assumed stylistic responsibilities similar to Blount, Ridley and Bolden in the past. Those capabilities could make him far from a redundancy for a team like the Patriots.

Yet regardless of how he’s tasked, making the most of mass will be key for Houston; he tends to run high through the exchange and doesn’t consistently drive his legs through contact. But if he is able to make his cut and go, it can take a lot to bring him down.

Due to Houston’s get-up speed and strong build, he can be just as impactful outside the tackles as he is inside the trenches. And due to his experience as a receiving option, defenses have to be multidimensional when facing him.

The Wind of James White

White started just 12 games at halfback over his four seasons at Wisconsin. But by playing in 52 games and also starting two in the slot, he proved that getting the nod isn’t the end-all, be-all towards getting into the record books. He proved that undersized backs with average breakaway speed can be just as dynamic with the ball in their hands. He proved that vision, balance and short-area quickness can divide defenses in ways that track speed and brute power cannot.

White worked in tandem with current Denver Bronco Montee Ball and soon-to-be senior Melvin Gordon. He returned kicks, handled blitz pickup, snared passes out of the backfield, cut upfield after handoffs, and took snaps from the Wildcat. In doing so, the versatile 22-year-old finished his Badgers career with 4,685 yards from scrimmage and 48 total touchdowns. He finished fourth in Wisconsin history with 4,015 rushing yards, third with 45 rushing touchdowns, and ninth all-time in Big Ten in total scores. Along the way, White also finished with a career 6.24 yards per carry – a Wisconsin record.

In turn, the back who played most of his career under the 200-pound threshold landed in New England as a fourth-round draft choice. When you watch White play, it isn’t hard to understand why. It doesn’t take long to notice his lower of gravity. And his pad level keeps his powerful legs churning through piles, while his flexibility allows him to turn the corner off the tackle and into the second level.

He sees the gaps and is decisive in attacking them, but it would remiss to overlook his prowess in making opponents miss as he stays on his feet to shake and spin out of tackles.

Adding onto his ability to shed defensive fronts is his ability to withstand collisions. As he stated during his visit to Gillette Stadium on May 20, “ball security is job security.” It’s a concept he has put to use. White garnered 756 career touches during his days at Wisconsin, and just two of which resulted in fumbles.

White’s skill set is a well-rounded one. Because of that, it’s plausible to think he could be more than a third-down contributor at the next level. He may not ever be a feature back or a short-yardage type for the Patriots, but he has shown he can get on the field in a multitude of facets. He may not be Vereen, but there’s reason to believe he’ll harness a purpose in year one.

The Fire of Roy Finch

Finch was one of the first names linked to New England when undrafted free agency embarked on May 10. And soon after the news circulated, so did the intrigue. The diminutive but dangerous Finch played in 47 games over his Oklahoma career, starting 10. Glimpses of his play drew semblance to a Jeff Demps highlight reel, whereas glimpses of his production drew semblance to a declining stock market.

Finch dashed onto the scene in 2010, earning 85 carries for 398 yards and two touchdowns to go with 10 catches for 49 yards and one kick return for 18 yards. Then in 2011, he racked up 111 carries for 605 yards and three touchdowns, tacking on 34 catches for 296 yards and 11 returns for 203 yards.

A drop-off followed. Finch saw his number called for just seven rushing attempts, two receptions and 12 kick returns as a junior in 2012. And as a senior in 2013, he saw 59 attempts, 12 receptions and 19 kick returns. His final two years at Oklahoma failed to follow the trajectory of his first two. His role as a returner expanded, and a 100-yard touchdown was the consequence. But his career rushing average of 5.4 yards and receiving average of 7.6 yards remained underutilized.

There were instances where his lack of playing time netted honest explanations from the coaching staff, alluding to effort in practice. There were instances where it was his lack of success in pass protection kept him off the field in third-down situations he often thrived in.

But there were also instances where Finch’s sprint-stop ability and sudden change of direction made him one of the most exciting players in the country. There was instances where his stability and explosiveness shot him out of the tunnels he had disappeared into. And there were instances where perhaps even Finch didn’t know where he was heading, but his athleticism and creativity got him there.

The 22-year-old Finch will never be an every-down player in the NFL. But he doesn’t have to be a bell-cow back to be effective. He is a spark plug who can provide a change of pace on passing downs, and he is a returner who moves with more fluidity than his 4.5 40-yard dash and 7.07 three-cone times suggest. He is a home-run hitter, even if his sample size to show it has been limited.

Balancing All Three

Drafted or undrafted, Houston, White and Finch will find themselves at the same starting point once the install, the practices, and the preseason games blend together.

All three rookies have a chance to showcase during organized team activities and training camp, as all three bring a different element to the table. But for them, as well as head coach Bill Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and running backs coach Ivan Fears, it will be about finding a way for each one to translate.

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25 Responses to “Patriots’ Rookie Running Backs Carry Some Earth, Wind and Fire”

  1. Kevan says:

    Ok. In the nfl draft from 2008-2012 pats rank 2nd in starters drafted(16) tied for first in 1st rd (7) tied for 5th in starters rds 5-7 (3) tied for 3rd in pro bowlers (7). That was a google search. Pats have 2 starters in every draft dating back to 08′. USA today ranks pats 1st from 09′-13′ pretty cool when only 30 percent of players drafted actually make it, then throw in the fact the pats always draft at the end of every round. rank the pats #1 in drafting from 2001-2010 with the 2nd most pro bowlers. Most players with a career approximate value of 50 plus.(formula that takes into account position,playing time,team success, production). 2nd most of career AV of 20 or better. Tied for 3rd in terms of draftees still active in league as of 2010. Just think only only 75 players from 2010 draft are still with their original team! That’s just 29.4%, from 4 years ago! Even in time of the pats worst drafting period (2005-2009 ranked pats 14th most efficient. 7% better than league average. ranked pats in top 5. All 10 of their #1 picks were still playing the time this study was done. On top of that 11 of there 14 #2’s were still playing. Throw in the success the team has had I don’t understand the complaints from a win loss stand point or a drafting stand point. Before bb pats made it to the playoffs consecutively just 2 times. 2001-2010 set record for 121 wins in a decade, then broke that record 2 times. Ending with 126 wins in a ten year span. 3rd most in Super Bowl appearances(7) most appearances and wins in last 25 years.(thank you bb). Pats have won the division all but 2 times(one cuz Brady was out,still went 11-5). Not one losing season since 2000. Most wins in a row including playoffs, one of 8 teams to win it back to back. And one of 2 teams to win 3 in 4 years. It’s safe to say bb is a master at work, coaching and gm. For the life of me I don’t understand the complaints. It could be a lot worse right? I know it’s frustrating to be really good and not have a title in awhile but pats will get another Super Bowl. Brady and bb are not done, and it won’t cost them 5 years of losing to do it. This team us built right, for the long haul. I say let the professionals do their job. It’s ok to have opinions but let’s not judge to harshly, especially right out the gate. Lets at least let the rookies play first. Go pats.

  2. Patriot Paul in the ATL says:

    Just watched the Stephen Houston highlights and wow, how can you not be impressed. Hard to believe he wasn’t drafted???? Sure he had some big holes but his instincts and quickness thru the hole were impressive. And he can catch it out of the backfield. With our new TEless O, Brady might break the attempts record and throw for 5000 – this is going to be a fast O and the RB’s will need to be able to catch it. This team is now built to beat to Denver, SF, Seattle. WR’s and RB’s zipping all the field and our QB of the future (Jimmy G) – we’ll look like an arena football team! Not good news for Ridley. Ridley to the Cards for Rob Housler anyone?

    • carlo strada says:

      Undoubtedly this team is on its way building itself in order to beat Denver Broncos and all the AFC, however why do you think Pats are able to beat up hard nosed teams such as NFC west powerhouses? To begin with, nowadays pats lack Gronks insurance (they didnt addressed it at draft nor FA), i mean pats are one team when gronk is in, and a very different one when he s out (Gronk is the thin line that borders one great season and one struggling one), so id be a bit more cautious here. The only way to beat a Seattle or San Francisco is to be more aggressive than them, and patriots havent showed it yet. So for now that what you say its sort of etherious. You need a healthy Gronk to beat them, and we all know how the tale ends when he s out.

  3. Jack T says:

    A lot is going to depend on what Bill & TB can concoct around these new players and that’s dependent on how adaptable they are to the NE pro style. To me the most intriguing guy is Justin Jones and the possibilities he brings in fitting him into the role of move TE. His 3-cone drill time was faster than Houston’s! This 6’8″ 277 lb dude sets up all kinds of scenarios for multiple options, coming out of the backfield as a blocking back for the RB or TB, a goal line power halfback and a TE. If he can catch and hold onto the ball Devlin becomes the expendable piece. The speed of the new backs demands a whole new set of schemes worthy of the genius of BB.

  4. Stephen J says:

    How many RB’s do the Pat’s carry this year. Then what about the FB James Develin does he still get the nod or does someone else like Brian Leonard come in and replace him. I am thinking 1 FB and 4 RB’s. As of right now the Pats website has 8 RB’s listed on the roster.
    Brandon Bolden
    James Develin
    Roy Finch
    Jonas Gray
    Stephen Houston
    Stevan Ridley
    Shane Vereen
    James White
    That would mean 3 would be cut/let go put on PUP(Shane Vereen wrist??)
    Then PS candidates. Who would make it through the waiver wires.
    Is Ridley out of BB’s dog house
    Has Brandon Boldin come out of BB’s dog house as well from his PED suspension

    • MaineMan says:

      I think that Develin’s fate may be more closely tied to what transpires with the TE group than to the RBs. He’s been mostly a utility blocker so far, sometimes working in a traditional lead-blocker role, while playing something like a blocking TE at other times, though he did have that one magnificent one-yard TD last season. Actually, if the OL implements more power-blocking principles on the shoulders of the draftees (and Cannon), we could see a few more short-yardage carries from Develin this season. Develin’s cap hit is the same as Bolden’s ($570k), BTW, and he’s also been a valuable special-teamer.

      Like Finch, Jonas Gray is kind of a wildcard. He wasn’t productive until his senior year at Notre Dame (2011) and then tore his ACL. He was originally signed as a 2012 UDFA by Miami, placed on PUP, but never activated. He was finally cut at the end of their 2013 Camp and was out of football until the Pats picked him up at the beginning of January this year. They signed him to a reserve/futures contract which could mean they saw enough out of him in a couple weeks of practice to remain interested, but it could also mean that they wanted a longer eval period and just held him over so they could see him in OTAs. At this point, unless he does something truly remarkable during upcoming OTAs, I’d say his odds of sticking are pretty low.

      That leaves Bolden, Houston, Ridley, Vereen and White. As a 4th-rounder, White would have to face-plant NOT to stick for at least one season, so he’s a near-lock. I’m guessing Finch to the PS, so Bolden, Houston and Ridley are effectively competing for two spots, probably on more or less equal footing at this point.

    • GM-in-Training says:

      I just don’t see Roy Finch making it in the Pats organization, and I’m not sure in the NFL. His 40-dash is 4.5 (not bad for a big running back, but terrible for a 177# back), and his 3-cone is 7.07, which is astonishingly average for a 5’6″ guy with a low center of gravity who is supposed to run around people. His 10-yard split of 1.65 is also not great acceleration…so how does he function in the much faster NFL. I don’t think he translates to the NFL game.

      • Jack says:

        All true. But there’s no measurable for “makes people miss”, and he’d be off the charts on that one. Honestly, I have not idea if he’ll make it or not, and I’ve been wrong more times that I can remember. But I actually think the bigger problem for him would be lack of size and if he can take the hits, and if he can block, more so than the speed issues.

  5. MaineMan says:

    If White pans out, I think Ridley is gone before Bolden. In addition to his fumbling issues, Ridley has never contributed much as a receiver, isn’t all that great in passpro and has no role on ST.

    Bolden is a decent runner, at least as good as Ridely in passpro, is a better receiver than Ridley and one of the top special-teamers.

    If Houston (who also has some receiving chops) can lower his pad-level, he could be a good replacement for Blount (who wasn’t much of a threat in the passing attack). Then, White/Bolden/Houston become the ground-game RBBC with the additional advantage that all three can catch. Vereen, then, becomes the 3rd-down/receiving back.

    Finch, it seems to me, is the outlier with the steepest hill to climb. At just over 5’6″ and 177 lbs, I don’t see him taking over 3rd-down duties from Vereen anytime soon and I don’t think the Pats will give up a roster spot for him just for KR/PR duties, even if he is pretty good at it, since they’re already losing a roster spot from last season in order to keep three QBs. One of the other RBs would need to make a major face-plant for Finch to stick as the 4th RB, so I think he ends up on the PS, at least until they have an opportunity (through injury) and find a role for him – perhaps later in the season.

    • Jack says:

      Those are some good points about Bolden. But the bottom line is he doesn’t run with the same level of of violence and power as Ridley. He’s not an awful runner, but he’s nothing special, either.

      I have a hard time thinking they cut Ridley – didn’t he run for 1000 yards a couple of years ago? I consider the locks to be Ridley, Vereen and White. I could see Houston replacing Blount/Bolden if they carry 4 backs. But, as I’ve mentioned many times, I want Finch to star in the pre-season and force his way onto the field in the regular season. The guy is just so fun to watch.

      • MaineMan says:

        Your description of Bolden is pretty much everything you want in a #4/reserve RB/”utility player”. Plus, he’s cheap, AND, since he’s RFA at the end of the season, likely to be cheap again in 2015. He’s also contributed more in his first two seasons that BGE did in his first two and BGE broke out in his 3rd season, so who knows?

        Ridley DID run for 1263 yds and 12 TDs – TWO seasons ago. But this is a “what have you done for me lately” business and last season he continued to prove that he can’t carry the ball securely with any consistency – after THREE seasons of the best efforts of some of the best coaches in the NFL. Worse, he also demonstrated that he’s pretty much an average runner when he does remember to carry “high-and-tight”. Sure, he has “potential”, but after three seasons, merely having potential doesn’t really cut it anymore, does it?

        So, given the above, plus the fact that his career receiving contributions (19/126) are less than what Bolden caught in 2013 alone (21/152), and that he doesn’t contribute on ST, and that his cap hit is about the same as Bolden, White and Houston added together . . .

        • Jack says:

          You make a good case, I’ll give you that. I’m not convinced, though. There’s a reason Bolden comes cheap – he’s just not that talented. I’m not in love with Ridley and his untimely turnovers, either. But a 1200 yard runner is a 1200 yard runner. BJGE didn’t do much in his first two years because they never let him on the field, despite the fact he was obviously better than any RBs on the roster. That’s not the case with Bolden, in my opinion. He hasn’t done anything to convince me that he’s already maxed out. The Pats had a shot to win the SB if they had played Ridley, because the they had no running game. But they had benched him due to a fumble (what else) the previous week.

          The bottom line is the Pats have to go with the most talented players they have available. Ridley’s fumbles subtract from his value, but maybe he’ll improve this year. But, otherwise we gotta live with them and spread it out to the other, new guys – like Finch 🙂

  6. Jack says:

    First things first – Brandon Bolden does not make this team, no way, no how. At least, I hope not.

    The guy I’m truly excited about is Finch. Rember how exciting it was every time Jeff Demps touched the ball? I know he didn’t work out – he liked track IIRC – but Finch is the very definition of a “human highlight reel”. I’ll be holding my breath every time he gets a touch.

    I wasn’t impressed with the film on Houston, but then again he is a big guy. I’ll have to see more of him. But, I wasn’t overwhelmed.

    • Stephen J says:

      In regards to Stephen Houston, College Football Metrics had this to say

      There are times I watch the tape on Stephen Houston and wonder, “Is he potentially the best RB in this 2014 class?” There are other times where I watch the tape, and want to toss my notes in the trash.

      So it sounds like either he was going through growing pain issues or he is inconsistent or possibly both. If he has put it all together and has become consistent then I like the potential. That’s what makes Stephen Houston intriguing to me. Also liked a couple of his pro day numbers. 40″ vertical and 11′ broad jump. Those are some explosive numbers.

      • Jack says:

        I took a look at his highlights again, and I think what the problem was is that on a lot of his best plays, there were gaping holes created by the O-lineman. He does have that instinctive ability to identify and hit the openings, without question. He wont be brought down by arm-tackles and can even occasionally make a guy miss. Like Blount, he has the speed to take it to the house if he busts through the initial line. Basically, he’s a big back with excellent vision. I’m not an evaluator, but the bottom line is that, if there’s a hole he’ll get you some yards, but I don’t think he can create his own offense, so to speak.

        • Stephen J says:

          If he can use that instinctive ability hit the holes without dancing around and use his speed maybe he will be a good replacement for Blount which is what I am hoping for.

  7. Dan says:

    I’d say that the only true lock to make this team at running back is White. By “lock” I mean I’d bet my life on it. I’m NOT saying that he and all the free agents will replace Ridley, Vereen etc…I’m saying that if you ask me if Ridley is a “lock” I have to answer, “no”; does he have high odds of making the team? Sure, but he fumbles and he’s kind of an ass, so I can’t say he’s a lock. Vereen now has White as competition and he’s often hurt…too often; he’s very talented, but I can’t say he’s a lock either. Bolden obviously has stiff competition, but I like him and give him a 40% chance of making the team…maybe that’s too high? 25%…

    I like the competition, and I’m tired of the “potential” of Ridley & Vereen because they’ve been here too long to be using that term…we need healthy guys who can secure the football while on the field and not on the IR etc…They have stiff competition and this is a good thing.

  8. Kevan says:

    The Rb in the draft I really liked was jarick McKinnon. James white does look promising though, a Danny wood head-esque back with a lot more upside. There is defensively some depth here. That’s why I wonder about james develin, what does he really offer that a te or even a lineman cant do? I’m unsure of his special teams value, but it just seems like a wasted roster spot with the way the game is played now. With the possibility of having 3 qb’s on the roster that’s one less spot open. Ridely, Vereen, white, bolden, Houston. Finch can start at pup and work his way up. That gives the pats two big dogs, two receiving backs, and an insurance developmental type player on the roster, with the next Dave megget on the practice squad waiting in the wings. Also note browner doesn’t take a roster spot to start the season and pats have a lot of pup possibilities. I think more teams need to use the pup actually, like fresh reinforcements halfway through the season to give the team a boost. I know the player has to be “injured” but I would use that to my advantage if I was a coach for sure.

  9. TD says:

    The 3 holdovers from last year are really unreliable due to: ball security, injury and lack of performance. Last chance for both Ridley & Vereen to prove their reliability here or the new guys are going to be taking over their jobs.

  10. Stephen J says:

    This group is the most exciting/intriguing group that came from the draft this year. To be honest I was hoping for Charles Sims but I like that White had all that work and only 2 fumbles plus can catch and pass protect. I love Ridley when he is not fumbling the ball at the most inconvenient times(Drive killers and lost RZ opportunities). Stephen Houston may just be the one I’m most interested in to see if he can overtake Bolden and wear out D’s late in the game. Then last but not least is Roy Finch. The most exciting as far as possiblilites. Not sure how his lack of size and elite speed will carry over but sure would be nice to see some of those Barry Sanders esk highlights here in Pats land.

  11. J H TARBORO says:

    Here is a look at the Pats newest DT L.T. Tuipuloto Utah UDFA

  12. J H TARBORO says:

    Great article. I really hope each of these guys can carve out a niche, they all bring something different to the table and i think J. McDaniels can be creative enough to use them. Small guys make big guys miss and tire out defenses and create mismatches, and with good balancing of running and passing it could be a lethal combination. I’m quite sure we won’t make the mistake the Rams made when they got Tavon Austin in the 1st round 2yrs. ago and didn’t know how to use him.

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