The New England Patriots open training camp on July 24. To get you ready, we will go through the roster position by position, highlighting the story lines, battles, and key players. We continue with the running back position.
LeGarrette Blount, the team's second-leading rusher a year ago, already left this offseason as a free agent; his 153 carries could be immediately up for grabs, or spread out among the group. The Patriots have long-term question marks at the position; Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Bolden are all free agents in 2015.
Stevan Ridley: As the Patriots' bell-cow over the past two years, Ridley spent too much of 2013 looking at the ground after fumbling (four fumbles in 2013), and subsequently looking over his shoulder at his competition. His repeated issues with ball security have caused him to lose carries to backups, but he is a talented back with teh ball in his hands. Ridley is best known for his quick burst through holes, hard style of running, churning his legs after contact. he also has a nose for the goal line, and has led the team in rushing touchdowns each of the past two seasons.
Shane Vereen: Vereen has a special skill set that allows him to line up in the backfield or out wide as a receiver, and contribute from both spots (44 carries, 47 receptions in 2013). He remains the team's top option on passing downs, for both his abilities as a pass-catcher and in blitz protection. He has battled nagging injuries over the past few years (hamstring, wrist) that have kept him from reaching his full potential.
Brandon Bolden: Bolden has battled for scraps in the Patriots' backfield over the past two years, earning 111 carries for 545 yards and five touchdowns. He has a hard-nosed style of running that resembles Ridley, but was used in the passing game more often last year when Vereen went down. He hits holes with quickness but does not have top-end long speed to make big plays.
James Develin: At 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, no one is going to mistake Develin for a traditional running back. Fans will best remember his highlight-reel touchdown run against the Houston Texans, but Develin spent much of his season blocking for ball-carriers behind him (208 out of 373 snaps, according to stats website Pro Football Focus) when he wasn't lined up wide as a decoy or a tight end. He is solid as a lead-blocker, but only flashes the upper body strength to drive defenders back instead of simply holding his ground.
James White: At 5-foot-9 and 204 pounds, White is not considered a bruising back, but his compact build and low pad level can make him hard to bring down. He has quick burst and patience to wait for blocks to develop, a combination that often leads to positive yards. He is sure-handed with the ball in his hands, and fumbled only twice in his college career. He also has soft hands as a receiver and sound blocking technique in pass protection, making him a threat for touches in every phase of the game.
Roy Finch: Finch was never given a chance to shine at Oklahoma, but he took every chance to create highlight-reel plays. Immediately apparent are his quickness and open-field burst to create big plays. His cutback ability leaves defenders shaken from their shoes. He also packs a remarkable punch for a 5-foot-7, 177-pound back, often bouncing off tackles with the help of his low center of gravity.
Others: Jonas Gray, Stephen Houston
1. Stevan Ridley
2. Shane Vereen
3. James White
4. Roy Finch
5. James Develin
6. Brandon Bolden *
7. Jonas Gray *
8. Stephen Houston *
* = projected cut
No changes at the top of the depth chart this year, besides the spot that opened up with the departure of Blount. Bolden has been reliable, and has contributed on special teams, but Finch could fill that void and can return kicks. From a pure skill set standpoint, White and Finch are better suited to be Vereen's back-ups than Bolden, and Finch adds the special teams element (returned kicks during mini-camp). Develin gets the nod as the lone true fullback on the roster as the Patriots continue to transition to a more balanced approach on offense.