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Goal for rookie backs is to stay in the running

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / August 14, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - Running backs come in a pack with the Patriots. One guy isn’t asked to do it all, so it can be a challenge to stand out.

The Patriots have eight running backs on their roster, one more than they carried at the start of training camp last season. While the number has increased, there may be even more chances this preseason for a running back to squeeze into the mix.

Veteran Kevin Faulk is on the physically unable to perform list because of a knee injury he suffered last season. Rookie Shane Vereen has been out with a leg injury since Aug. 3. Eric Kettani also has been out since Aug. 2 with an undisclosed injury.

That leaves rookies Stevan Ridley and Richard Medlin to compete against returnees BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Sammy Morris, and Danny Woodhead.

“We’ll try to evaluate them relative to each other and relative to the group,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “Any time you have a set of backs, you have some complementary situations: first, second, third, fourth down, as it relates to blitz pickup, pass routes, and so forth, special teams and so on.

“Some guys are very good at one thing and not so good at others. Some guys are pretty good at everything but maybe not exceptional. You just evaluate each guy and then ultimately, you have to put them all together and figure what’s best for your team.’’

Five running backs made the opening 53-man roster last season: Laurence Maroney, Green-Ellis, Faulk, Morris, and Fred Taylor. Maroney was traded to Denver after Week 1. Faulk tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Week 2 against the Jets. Coincidentally, the Patriots signed Woodhead the same week and he emerged along with Green-Ellis to handle the bulk of the work.

Green-Ellis had a career-high 1,008 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns last year. Morris and Faulk each have résumés that speak for themselves. And the Patriots are watching Woodhead to see how he has progressed.

“We’d really like to see what his full value to the team would be with an entire training camp - knowing the system and really being able to build off his experience from last year,’’ Belichick said.

A couple of rookies got to show off their skills in the Patriots’ preseason opener, a 47-12 rout of the Jaguars on Thursday. Ridley rushed for a team-high 64 yards on 16 carries and two touchdowns and added seven catches for 47 yards and another score.

Medlin had 54 yards on 14 carries and also rushed for two scores. In practices, Medlin said he stays around the veterans to soak up their knowledge.

“I’m getting a good amount of reps,’’ Medlin said. “The main thing is learning the system. I’m playing my position and the coaches are evaluating. They know what’s best.’’

Medlin said his goal is to be versatile and that is something Morris said has helped him extend his career.

“I’ve always tried to pride myself on versatility and not get stuck with going to one thing,’’ Morris said. “It’s served me well. I’m going into my 12th year and have had a chance to play fullback, tailback, third-down stuff, and special teams.’’

The rookies didn’t get their usual chance to learn the Patriots system because of the lockout.

“This year probably more so than any other, having a short amount of time to get a lot of information, it’s definitely difficult,’’ Morris said. “I think the guys are doing a great job of learning on the fly pretty much.’’

Green-Ellis said once a player learns his responsibilities, there isn’t much left to do except to execute, no matter how many running backs are in the group.

“You make sure when your number is called you can go out there and be dependable and make sure everybody can count on us,’’ Green-Ellis said.

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @monwalker.

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