Patriots venture into unknown at tailback

June, 17, 2012
6/17/12
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Tom Brady, Joseph AddaiAP Photo/Charles KrupaWill Joseph Addai, the most experienced running back on the Patriots roster, step up to take some presure off Tom Brady and the offense?

Not even the great Tom Brady can throw 70 times per game. At some point, the New England Patriots must rely on their running game this season to complement their future Hall of Fame quarterback and high-powered passing attack.

But who is ready to carry to load this year for the Patriots? That is a question the defending AFC champions are not ready to answer.

Consider New England's ground attack a journey into the unknown. Its running back roster reads like a waiver wire scrap heap in fantasy football: Joseph Addai, Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. These four combine for nine career starts in New England. Addai, a free-agent signing, has 60 starts but all were with the Indianapolis Colts.

None of them stand out on their own. But the Patriots are hoping for strength by committee.

"We're not really focused on who's going to be the guy or anything like that; we're just trying to help each other out and learn together," Ridley said during last week's minicamp. "If we can all [learn] that playbook, then they can put us anywhere on the field and we can go out there and be successful. That's when we do better as a unit.

"One person is not going to get it done all the way through the season and we know that, so we have to be able to depend on everybody."

After the offseason departure of former starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Patriots' coaching staff is trying to figure out who they can trust most with the football in 2012. Green-Ellis was not an elite back, but he was good for New England's pass-heavy system. Green-Ellis was tough, dependable and never lost a fumble in four seasons.

While Brady and New England's dynamic receivers and tight ends put up points and made big plays, Green-Ellis did most of the dirty work between the tackles. The Cincinnati Bengals signed Green-Ellis to a three-year, $9 million contract this offseason. Add the loss of trusted veteran Kevin Faulk, 36, to the mix and New England is virtually starting over at the position.

"We have a bunch of young kids that have a lot more to learn," Patriots running back coach Ivan Fears said. "I had a lot of guys [last year] who experienced the game and knew what to expect in the pro game. These guys are young."

The Patriots spent last week's minicamp in the exploratory phase. New England's running backs shifted in and out with different personnel groupings, and it's too early to tell if there's a clear-cut player ahead in the race to be the starter.

This is a group that very much needs coaching, experience and attention to detail. It will be up to the coaching staff to determine which running back is best suited for certain in-game situations.

Each tailback brings certain strengths to the table. Ridley and Vereen, for example, are 2011 draft picks and have fresh, young legs. Addai has the most experience. Woodhead is quick and has value as a third-down back.

"Everybody is different, and everybody has a style that made them what they are," Fears said. "A lot of guys have been successful doing it in various ways."

Heading into training camp, Ridley and Vereen most likely have the inside track on the starting job. Ridley had two starts and showed flashes last year. He gained 441 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Vereen battled injuries and recorded just 15 carries for 57 yards and a touchdown in 2011.

Both joined the team together and have created a healthy bond and competition. They are neighbors and spend time studying the playbook together. Ridley and Vereen also plan to make a significant jump in their second season together, which would help the Patriots tremendously.

"I definitely think so because we're going through the same struggles on the field and off the field at the same time," Vereen said. "Both of our heads were spinning 100 miles an hour last year. It’s a very good bond between me and Stevan."

New England's passing game should take pressure off its running backs. Defenses cannot stack the line of scrimmage against Brady and New England's spread formations. The Patriots also added fullbacks Spencer Larsen and Tony Fiammetta to the roster. One fullback will probably make the team, and the position could be used more this season.

Ridley described New England's tailback situation as "wide open." He is exactly right. The Patriots' offense should be a juggernaut again in 2012, as long as at least one player from this unproven group of running backs steps forward.

James Walker | email

ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter

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