- Field Yates, ESPN Insider
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The Patriots lost running back Danny Woodhead in free agency this offseason, but the team was able to sign a player with a similar skill set in veteran Leon Washington, who finished second in the NFL in kickoff return average in 2012.
But Washington may not be the only back responsible for taking on Woodhead's snaps (Woodhead was second to Stevan Ridley among running back snaps, playing 34.1 percent of the offensive plays in 2012), as third-year player Shane Vereen also looks to absorb a larger role as he continues his development.
In fact, as Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus noted in a piece for ESPN Insider, Vereen's snaps doubled after Week 8 of the 2012 season. That, plus the absence of Woodhead, are reasons why he lands on Jahnke's list of 10 "rising snap count stars" for 2013 (the list focuses on fantasy football positions).
Piggybacking on that thought, it's worth pointing out that in his list of the best run-blocking offensive lines in 2012, ESPN Insider's KC Joyner found that the Patriots were third, with a "good blocking rate" of 50.7 percent. The entire starting group from 2012 returns this year and should be a strength for the Patriots offense again in 2013.
Thinking beyond just the statistical metrics, Vereen is an intriguing player for the Patriots offense, a unit that has undergone some turnover this offseason. He flashed at times during his second season, particularly as a pass-catcher with exceptional run-after-catch ability. Perhaps the biggest question entering the 2013 season is how the Patriots' passing attack will adapt with Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd gone and Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez coming back from offseason surgeries.
Vereen could be in line for more carries this season, but he also could prove to be a valuable receiving weapon for the Patriots because of his route-running and catching skills and the mismatch he would create against linebackers. He had just eight catches in 2012, but that number should increase this season.
If the Patriots are forced to play without any of their projected top weapons for any period of time to start the regular season (Gronkowski's availability for the season opener is still not known at this time), the offensive staff could get creative and play with unconventional personnel groups (Bill Barnwell of Grantland recently wrote about the Patriots operating in single-receiver sets).
We often assess offseasons based on players added and players lost, sometimes overlooking the development (or regression) of players already on the roster. Vereen fits the category of a player who could take a step forward in 2013 and become a bigger part of the Patriots offense.
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