Commentary

Patriots' RB puzzle pieces in place

With added speed and depth, new-look unit looks promising but crowded

Updated: August 4, 2011, 9:13 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When BenJarvus Green-Ellis signed a contract with the New England Patriots on Wednesday, it represented the final piece of the team's running back puzzle. The time had come to finally see the full stable of backs and how they might complement each other.

Green-Ellis has proved to be a grinder with a knack for avoiding negative yardage. He's 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, a no-nonsense runner coming off a 1,000-yard season. Then there's Danny Woodhead, the overachieving "passing back" who came out of nowhere in 2010 to emerge as a key contributor. In three-receiver sets, when pass-protection and pass-catching skills take on added importance, Woodhead (5-8, 195) is the man.

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
Stew Milne-US PRESSWIREStevan Ridley got significant repetitions in practice while BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris remained idle earlier in the week.

Joining those top returners were rookies Shane Vereen (second round, 56th overall) and Stevan Ridley (third round, 73rd overall), each adding his own dynamic to the mix. Vereen (5-9, 205) looked like one of the fastest players on the field the past two days, while Ridley (5-11, 225) appears to be more of a power, inside runner.

With reliable veterans Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris returning, that's a running back depth chart that goes six deep and raises the question, "Who stays and who goes?" The team projects to keep four or five of them.

"We're all in this together," Woodhead said of the new-look group. "We're in this to help our team out in any way possible and are trying to get better as a unit."

How it all shakes out, Green-Ellis isn't sure, but he envisions good times ahead for the group.

"I think it's just going to be fun for us to get out here," he said. "No one can really predict the future. We can only come to practice and put our best foot forward out there at practice and work hard."

Thursday would have been the day it started to come together, representing the first time Green-Ellis, Faulk and Morris could practice under the NFL's new labor agreement. But the plans might now be altered after Vereen left Wednesday's practice with what appeared to be a hamstring injury. He did not return, his status now one of the more significant injury questions facing the club.

As for the running game as a whole, the Patriots aren't about to become a ground-and-pound type of team, not with quarterback Tom Brady at the controls. But they did make a concerted effort in the offseason to inject some fresh legs into the mix, with Vereen and Ridley fitting their mold.

One of the things that stood out to Faulk about both rookies was their smarts.

"They won't bring a guy in here that they don't feel like is very sharp and that can pick up on what we're doing as a football team and as an organization," he said.

Ridley has taken advantage of his early opportunity, getting significant repetitions in practice while Green-Ellis, Faulk and Morris remained idle, and Vereen unsigned. That has given him a nice running start, while also providing extended opportunities to work on his pass-catching skills, which look a bit raw.

The Patriots averaged 4.3 yards per carry last season, the second-best mark in Bill Belichick's tenure as coach. But some of their biggest struggles came against 3-4 defenses, with the three season-low rushing outputs coming against the Chargers (51 yards), Jets (52) and Browns (68). Meanwhile, 417 of the team's 1,973 yards came in two games against the Bills.

So generating more consistency on a game-to-game basis is an obvious goal for the ground attack, and new weapons Vereen and Ridley add a new dynamic to the mix.

The hope was to see the new-look group for the first time Thursday, but Vereen's injury might put those plans on hold.

Mike Reiss covers the New England Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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