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Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Will any Patriots back thrive?

By AJ Mass
ESPN.com

With BenJarvus Green-Ellis gone, will one running back take the reins in New England?

Decisions 2012

They say a leopard cannot change its spots. In the case of Bill Belichick, the same can be said not only for his choice of sideline attire but also his running philosophy.

Simply put, in the absence of a superstar running back, there's no reason to believe that Belichick will divert from his time-honored tradition of using a time-share in his backfield. He simply cannot change.

Belichick has never been one to put all his eggs in one basket when running the ball. A quick look at the following chart will show that the last time he put his faith in just one set of legs, it was Corey Dillon, way back in 2004.

Injuries forced Dillon's workload to diminish over the subsequent years, but since that time, the Patriots have been able to produce at a relatively constant rate in the ground game without the need to have a superstar do all of the heavy lifting.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis was a reliable ball carrier, with nary a fumble to his name. That's why over the past two seasons, though he ranked 18th in overall carries, when it came to crunch time, he was used far more frequently, moving up to seventh overall when only fourth quarter carries were taken into account.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis
BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 24 rushing touchdowns the past two seasons, so the Patriots don't score only through the air.

But do we really think any of the group that includes Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden is the reincarnation of Dillon? Belichick certainly doesn't think so, telling NESN after a recent practice, "If the Corey Dillon of 2004 was on this roster, I'm sure he'd get it 300 times too. I have not seen Corey out there today."

At best, we can expect the No. 1 back in New England to get 200 carries. In order to end up with 1,000 yards for the season with that small number of touches, he would have to average five yards per carry. How likely is that? Since 2000, only 27 backs have managed that average with at least 200 carries.

Ridley, the likely candidate to be the No. 1 guy in Week 1, managed to sustain a 5.1 YPC rate in 87 carries last season. Most importantly, he did even better than that, 5.4, during a three-game stretch from Weeks 15-17 last season, which certainly factored into the decision to let the Law Firm find employment elsewhere in 2012.

However, it's a far cry from saying that Ridley will be the best of this ragtag bunch of backs to elevating him into anything more than a flex play, even if he does manage to score with the same frequency as his predecessor.

His ADP places him as the No. 24 running back off the board, two spots behind Green-Ellis. That's probably about right for Ridley, simply because when the Patriots go into passing mode -- and heaven knows Belichick has no problem going full throttle in that regard all game, every game -- the skill sets of Woodhead and Vereen appear better suited for being on the field. Either can be taken as a late-round flier in a PPR format.

In the end, the Patriots will win and lose via the air. Tom Brady and his multiple passing weapons are the keys to another trip to the Super Bowl. Ridley and the rest will merely be tasked with not getting in the way. From a team standpoint, they may do the job. However, that simply won't translate into much fantasy value for any of them.