Not long ago a spare part, Green-Ellis now the top option in the Patriots’ running game
FOXBOROUGH — Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis acknowledges that he can be kind of boring. He keeps candy within his grasp because he loves to snack. He doesn’t get angry easily. And he isn’t big on setting personal goals.
When veteran Fred Taylor arrived in New England last season, he didn’t know much about Green-Ellis. The younger running back was in his second season with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent out of Mississippi.
“He was quiet and just kept to himself,’’ Taylor said. “I kind of got the chance to know him and realized that he was many, many years more mature than his age states. The fact that he wants [success] and he’s passionate about everything he does. He listens. He’s very coachable. He takes situations and tries to make the most of it.’’
Green-Ellis couldn’t have known he would become the primary tailback for the Patriots. Yet the previous two years his teammates watched him prepare week in and week out as if he was going to be a starter. That day finally arrived this season.
Green-Ellis needs to average at least 71 yards in the last three regular-season games to become the Patriots’ first 1,000-yard rusher since Corey Dillon ran for a team-record 1,635 yards in 2004. Just reaching 1,000 yards isn’t the goal for a running back, but to hit the mark in a system that relies on several options to move the ball is an achievement, Taylor said.
“I don’t want to say it’s a milestone, but it’s maybe the standard,’’ said Taylor, who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards seven times in his 13 seasons. “It’s what you’re kind of judged on. In all actuality, that’s only 60 yards a game. No one wants to be known for just being able to average 60 yards a game, but to say you went over 1,000, it’s something that has been the standard for years.
“Since the two-back system has been implemented as of late the past few years, you know, 1,000 yards isn’t so bad when you have guys splitting time at that position.’’
Reaching a milestone hasn’t been the goal for Green-Ellis. Just getting a spot on the field on a consistent basis had been difficult for the 25-year-old New Orleans native. Green-Ellis played at Indiana and later transferred to Mississippi, where he played two seasons. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of those two seasons (2006, ’07) and became the second player in Rebels history to manage the feat.
But NFL interest in Green-Ellis wasn’t strong. He went undrafted and signed with the Patriots in 2008. He ended up on the Patriots’ practice squad in August 2008 and was promoted to the active roster in October. Green-Ellis didn’t see many chances in his rookie season because of the wealth of running backs competing for carries. Even last season, Green-Ellis was inactive for four games and had his most productive outing in a 59-0 blowout of Tennessee, when he rushed for 67 yards on seven carries.
This season the dynamic of the Patriots’ running backs changed. Laurence Maroney, a 2006 first-round selection, was traded to Denver after the season opener. Eight days later, Kevin Faulk was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury. And a couple of weeks later, Taylor was battling turf toe, which kept him out a significant amount of time.
The changes left the running game in the hands of Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, and Sammy Morris. Eventually, Green-Ellis and Woodhead would solidify themselves as the No. 1 and No. 2 options in the Patriots’ offense, which is averaging a league-best 31.9 points a game.
“He’s been steady and in hindsight you can see that hard work has paid off, because prior to him getting that opportunity, he didn’t know he was going to get that opportunity,’’ Taylor said. “He’s just working toward trying to be a better player. He deserves everything he’s gotten.’’
Green-Ellis has 786 yards on 184 carries this season. If he reaches 1,000 yards, he will become the 11th player in team history to do so. But reaching the magic number doesn’t matter much to Green-Ellis. When it comes to setting goals, he said he doesn’t do it much because motivation isn’t always about achieving personal success.
“It’s real easy to stay motivated because you always want to stay accountable and dependable for the other 10 guys on the field with you or the other 52 teammates,’’ Green-Ellis said. “So it’s kind of easy to stay focused. You got to make sure you’re doing your job to the best of your ability because the other guys are working hard to do theirs.’’
One way Green-Ellis shows that appreciation is with the offensive line. Patriots guard Logan Mankins said Green-Ellis is often communicating with the line after a hard run.
“We want the best for Benny because if Benny’s doing good, that means the team is doing good,’’ Mankins said. “We all enjoy blocking for Benny. He’s a great guy and he’s always trying his hardest.’’
The yards come in spurts for Green-Ellis. He is averaging 4.3 yards a carry and rarely is pushed backward.
“Yeah, he’s always going forward and he sees the holes great and he gets up in there and he gets what there is and he hardly ever loses any yards,’’ Mankins said.
As the Patriots prepared for tonight’s game against the Packers, Green-Ellis said he doesn’t feel worn at this point. He is playing the most he has in his three years.
If he gets to 1,000 yards he said he may celebrate, but his goals are focused on winning.
“Right now, I’m just trying to go out and help us win,’’ Green-Ellis said. “Whatever comes with it, I’m all for it. I’ve always been more about doing the best I can and wherever it falls, it falls.’’
Michael Vega of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Monique Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.