Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Reloading the Musket - Part 3: Patriots' offensive balance dependent on three-down back

So, what can we take from the fact that for the second year in a row, the New England Patriots have let a productive running back escape their system in free agency - and for very affordable money.

It raises questions for sure, not the least important of which is why Gillette Stadium seems to be turning into a clearing house for quality running backs - and also taking into account how the experts regard the position to be devalued in the modern NFL.

Last offseason, It was Danny Woodhead, whom the Patriots let walk to San Diego under what would have been an easy to absorb two-year, $3.5 million deal for what was essentially the same role that he played in Foxborough - that of a quick-twitch, jitterbug third-down back...

Towson's Terrance West could be a mid-round gem
...while hammer back LeGarrette Blount, whom the Patriots picked up in a draft weekend trade with Tampa Bay last offseason was allowed to bolt for Pittsburgh under a similar deal for a backup role with the Steelers.

The backlash for the Woodhead debacle was muted somewhat due to the outrage over first the Wes Welker defection to the Broncos, then the news that Rob Gronkowski needed back surgery and wouldn't be ready for the start of the season and then the sobering reality that Aaron Hernandez was a murderous thug...

...but then came to the forefront when third down back Shane Vereen broke his wrist in the first game of the season in the role that he took over in the place of Woodhead - coupled with the lack of familiar receiving targets for quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots' offense suffered and sputtered like it never had in the Bill Belichick era.

And now, Blount has bolted to Pittsburgh, leaving the Patriots "power" ground game in the sometimes slippery mitts of Stevan Ridley, seldom used Brandon Bolden and Vereen - and what's worse, is that all three are in a contract year, making it very difficult to keep the group together beyond this season.

Fortunately, the Patriots didn't bite on the contract demands of any aging veterans on the market - so with no viable options beyond the backs currently on the roster entering their big payday audition season, it would appear that the draft is where the Patriots will be seeking to add to the depth chart.

And they need to, because if they learned nothing else from the Woodhead error, it's that fortune favors the prepared, and in this case, being prepared is having a solid backup plan.

But what is a solid backup plan to Belichick?

Belichick had a backup plan in Shane Vereen when he let Woodhead test the market, but the Blount one year rental is where things become murky.  When Belichick traded for Blount, the thought was that the team was going to become more balanced offensively, with Ridley and Blount serving as power backs with Vereen and Bolden in a more all-purpose role.

And we saw snippets of the balance throughout the first dozen games, but it wasn't until the already shaky receiving corps suffered so many injuries that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had no choice but to feature a run-heavy attack that Patriots' fans truly witnessed what that running game was capable of - and so dominating was it that the feeling was that the team would ensure Blount remained to pick up where the group left off.

But he's gone - which leaves one to wonder exactly what the offense is going to look like.  It truly is a make-or-break year for all of the runners on the roster and we've probably seen the best of what the team is going to get from them.  They are all capable, so Belichick could elect to go into the season with his 2012 version of the running game...

...or he could try to build on last season's success through the draft by going after a big featured back that the team hasn't had since Corey Dillon left as part of the failed and wrong Laurence Maroney experiment, and because Brady hasn't had a three-down guy that he could turn and give the ball to 20 times and throw it to four or more times a game since Antowain Smith left a dozen years ago.

And that's what is needed.  The Denver Broncos were able to shut down New England's offense in the AFC Title Game because Brady's receiving options were limited, and because his two lead backs were runners only and didn't offer much in the passing game, the Broncos' front seven were able to tee off on Brady because they knew what was coming depending on who was on the field.

Ridley is a strong runner but has stone for hands, and all three backs are borderline as far as size to physically handle the beating that at bell cow receives, and all have had limiting injuries in their tenure - leaving the door open for a less expensive option for the next four years through the draft.

The only question is, what kind of draft capital is Belichick willing to invest in the running game?  If he wants one of the top runners in the class, a kid that he can leave on the field for three downs without rendering the offense predictable, he's probably going to have to cough up a second rounder, at minimum.

Carlos Hyde is powerfully built at 6' 0" and 230 pounds, and the Ohio State product is the bell cow type back that seems to get stronger and nastier as the game progresses, and he completes the picture with solid in pass protection skill and shows soft hands in the pattern.

Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey is perhaps the most gifted runner in the class, with similar size and skill to Hyde and could find his way into being someone's franchise back with his combination of speed, power and receiving ability - but some teams have reportedly dropped him from their big boards due to lingering off-field issues...

...which also rings true for LSU running back Jeremy Hill, who at 6' 1" and 235 pounds, is a unique threat as he can play it anyway you want - he will power through the line or slash through a hole to daylight and has good hands, both in protecting the ball and for snagging passes curling out of the backfield and is instinctive in pass protection.

Auburn's Tre Mason rounds out the top of the class, and there's little not to like.  A squatty back but lightning quick through the hole, Mason is an impact receiver and dependable in pass protection. Explosive one-cut style - when he sees a hole he gains it more quickly than any other back in the class.  Has additional value as an experienced kick returner.

It seems unlikely that New England will again settle for backs with limited skill set, but there are some backs that can be had in the middle rounds that could develop into the triple-threat back that that could make the offense a little more unpredictable.

Though smallish, Florida State's Devonta Freeman could be a late second day gem as he has the ability of any of the top backs, but back issues hurt his stock while having the luxury of running behind one of the better offensive lines in the college ranks inflates his value somewhat, but is an explosive runner with a slippery side that could become a three-down back

There are other smaller backs that project for the mid rounds, and speedsters such as Oregon game-breaker De'Anthony Thomas and Kent State's Dri Archer could fit into a third down back type of role, but the best of the smaller backs could be Towson's Terrance West.

While standing just 5' 9" tall, West is impressive physically at 225 pounds, is uniquely built to handle the rigors of running between the tackles, lower his pads to initiate contact with the defender and has an extra gear once he breaks free - and his receiving skill are top notch.  He does have room to improve in pass protection and he has a lot of carries to his credit already, but has enough tread left to contribute through a rookie contract.

Adding to the intrigue,  New England Patriots assistant to the coaching staff Mike Lombardi was in attendance at West's pro day and had a private meeting with him afterwards.

Boston College's Heisman Trophy finalist Andre Williams is a taller prospect in the same mold, but his lack of production in the passing game makes him a bit of a wildcard.In years past, Williams would have been the type of back taken in the first round with his bruising running style and decent speed - but in today's NFL that features a rotation of backs that can pass block and wheel out into the pattern, Williams is an anomoly.

Washington's Bishop Sankey is speedy and instinctive, but there really doesn't seem to be a need for a back like Sankey in the Patriots' offense. While a good receiver, his pass protection skills are far from elite and generally only gets what's blocked for him in the running game - the same going for West Virginia's Charles Sims but with the explosiveness that Sankey does not possess.

Sims doesn't project as an every down back, which isn't a concern in New England's rotational philosophy, but could be very productive in a Shane Vereen-type role as much of his damage in College came after the catch.  Durability is his biggest concern, which is why he's not more highly rated.

A list of potential late-round developmental types is led by three bigger backs, starting with Florida State's  James Wilder, Jr.  - at 6' 3" and 235 pounds, Wilder relies on brute strength to make up for his limited foot speed, but is a hammer up the middle and an effective cutter on the edge.  He has good hands and is decent in pass protection, which makes this plodding but powerful and explosive runner a good fit for New England's stable of rotational backs, but maybe not a feature back...

...while Idaho's James Baker may be the best back that no one's ever heard of - an  excellent smaller school prospect with terrific size and tremendous speed and soft hands.  At 6' 1" and 240 pounds, Baker ran a 4.55 and blew the doors off his pro day with his receiving and run after the catch ability, but the small school competition couple with ball security lapses make him a late-round or priority free agent project.

LSU's Alfred Blue is a tall back with room to get bigger if need be, with a sliding running style like the departed Blount but with more speed and decent hands but is an absolutely atrocious blocker - which is something that can be coached, but still places him in the priority free agent level.

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