Monday, June 2, 2014

Patriots' incumbent backs no roster locks as rookies ready to compete

"Both the University of Wisconsin and the Patriots are afforded the luxury of having the 5' 10", 200 pound White split carries both with the power backs that Wisconsin is noted for and that the Patriots' "By Committee" approach begs for - but in White, Patriots' coach Bill Belichick has drafted a back that can do everything the veteran backs can do - combined." - Foxborough Free Press, May 16, 2014

How much does Bill Belichick regret letting Danny Woodhead get away in free agency last offseason?

The Hoodie makes some mistakes in personnel, but usually not so egregious as to facilitate 2013's Summer of Pain, when he lost his top receiver, top third down back and half of his twin tight end attack - carrying over into the regular season when he lost Shane Vereen in the season opener with a broken bone in his wrist, then three defensive mainstays in successive weeks.

Belichick gambled that Vereen would at least match Woodhead's production and that new receiver Danny Amendola would come close to approaching "Welker-esque" numbers - but there was no replacing Aaron Hernandez as he sat - and still sits - rotting in jail...

...and coupled with the fact that the team was running with Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan as their tight ends at the start and at the end of the season, the onus fell on a group of rookie receivers and a brace of running backs that, while individually one dimensional which made the Patriots' offense predictable, those mistakes finally caught up with Belichick in the AFC Championship Game.

There is little doubt that Woodhead could have been a stabilizing force on the offense last season, particularly when designated third down back Shane Vereen missed eight games with a broken wrist, then proved to be merely average upon his return from the injured reserved list, as his soft cast-encased wrist was clearly not fully healed...

...and it still isn't according to Vereen, which is cause for concern as his penchant for dropping perfectly thrown Tom Brady sideline floaters can be directly attributed to the injury, and was hardly the explosive multi-tool weapon that Patriots' fans were hoping for in his third year, despite catching 47 balls and rushing 44 times after missing half of the season.

Especially considering that in his season-opening performance against the Buffalo Bills, Vereen assumed lead back duties after Stevan Ridley mishandled a couple of balls and rushed 14 times for 101 yards and caught seven for 58 - then went on to log a disappointing 107 yards on 30 carries the rest of the season while reeling in 40 for 369.

Woodhead would have made all the difference in the world to that offense, both in the pattern and in his hard-nosed running between the tackles - but he took his meager salary and high motor to San Diego where the Chargers gave him nearly 200 touches split between the ground and the air for over a thousand yards while New England got a quarter of that production out of Brandon Bolden.

Granted, had Vereen not gotten hurt and played the full season, the translated numbers would have been superior to what Woodhead generated in SoCal - but injured he was - and still is - as he admitted in an interview with the team's official website that it still isn't healed despite nine months having elapsed.

That, combined with the Woodhead miscalculation and the way that the Denver Broncos were able to shut down New England's running game in the AFC Championship game more or less forced Bill Belichick's hand in the draft, as he needed nastiness along the offensive line and a back that was capable of challenging for abundant playing time immediately.

The linemen he selected are all known to be maulers in the power running game and running back James White graduated from a run-heavy attack in Wisconsin, picking up 1444 yards on the ground and contributing another 300 through the air, averaging nearly seven yards each time he touched the football - proving to be trustworthy with the ball in his possession as well, fumbling just twice in over 700 touches in his career.

The scouting profile on White is almost the same word-for-word dossier that preceded both Vereen and Woodhead coming out of college - instinctive runners with good vision and lateral cutback ability with a history of good production in the passing game -and all had glowing rushing numbers with " a surprising amount of power between the tackles"...

...but what could end up separating White from Woodhead and Vereen is that despite his ankle-breaking stutter-step moves that leave linebackers grasping at thin air, he is in fact a compact north-south runner that relies on hesitation and instinct and always finishes his runs going forward - and while he does not possess sprinter's speed, he wastes very little motion, cuts on a dime and reaches top speed quickly.

“I feel like I’m a guy that can do it all." White told reporters during is post-draft conference call. "Block, catch the ball out of the backfield, run inside, run outside. Just really try to pride myself on doing all those things."

The film on White certainly bears that out, as does the imagery on intriguing undrafted rookie free agent Stephen Houston, a 6' 0", 230 pound wrecking ball out of Indiana.

Or at least potential wrecking ball, as Houston has yet to tap his enormous physical potential, as demonstrated at the combine with 4.46 speed and grading out with explosive numbers in the vertical jump and broad jump - but he is raw and those numbers don't necessarily translate to the field as yet.

In that respect, the incumbent backs on the roster have a leg up over the Junior College transfer who split carries with Tevin Coleman and D'Angelo Roberts in an offensive scheme that was geared more toward the pass - be that as it may, Houston still came away with 753 yards on just 112 carries for an average of nearly seven yards per carry...

...many of those coming off the stretch where Houston could read the blocking, either using his speed to gain the edge or cutting upfield against the grain - a style that could be particularly effective in setting up the play action and take the pressure off Brady in more ways than one as he is a soft-handed safety valve in the passing game as well.

In fact, both White and Houston are accomplished and smooth targets in the passing game and technically sound and instinctive in pass protection, which could afford the offense a bit more flexibility in play calling over Ridley, who offers very little in the passing game and Vereen who is capable in all areas but has yet to demonstrate the skill set on the consistent basis that got him drafted.

The rest of the depth chart is littered with an undersized "scatback" type in Oklahoma's Roy Finch, a power back in Notre Dame's Jonas Gray, the aforementioned Bolden and fullback James Develin.  While the first three are longshots to find themselves with a job on Sundays, if the Patriots truly are gearing more toward a power running scheme with drive blocking potential, Develin will be on the roster as he is an accomplished dot-back and also possesses intrinsic special teams' value.

So, what does all of this mean to the incumbents in the backfield?

Perhaps nothing, as there is already one void on the roster with LeGarrette Blount bolting for Pittsburgh in the offseason - but perhaps everything as Belichick's obsession with ball security comes into focus and that 2014 represents contract seasons for Ridley, Vereen and Bolden... even if the Patriots keep five backs as they did last season, someone in that backfield is losing their job - and if they are forced to cut back to four backs in order to keep three quarterbacks, New England's backfield could look significantly different than it did last season.

Ridley was benched three times during the course of last season for letting the ball hit the ground, and while that number wasn't even close to being the worst on the team, being entrusted with the ball out of the backfield and fumbling that many times with less than 200 touches is cause for concern.

Brady and receiver Julian Edelman had more, Brady handled the ball 1138 times while fumbling 10 times and throwing 11 picks - giving the ball away every 54 times he handled it, while Edelman has some things to work on as he put the ball on the ground six times in only 107 touches - so Ridley is far from the only issue, but he is part of the overall issue and likely making Belichick nervous.

All of that being said and true, the returning Patriots' backfield is not as strong as it appears on the surface, which is why Belichick spent fourth round draft capital on a back in White that can do whatever he's asked and hold onto the football while Houston's upside and size/speed ratio is tough to ignore.

Ridley is a good running back and is capable of a 1200 yard season and Vereen is a good back and capable of 1000 yards from scrimmage, but their combination of ball security and injury, respectively - coupled with the fact that they will be looking to get paid as unrestricted free agents next offseason - raises enough doubt that White and Houston should make the final roster, with White perhaps pushing for a starting gig.

But we are a long way from that determination, though the knowledge that Bill Belichick has brought in running backs to compete in camp that provide qualities that the incumbent backs do not is compelling, and certainly worth keeping an eye on in OTA's and training camp.

This is part 4 of 9 wrapping up the Patriots' offseason.  Part 5 will focus on the intriguing mix of talent amongst the pass catchers.

Part 1 of 9: New England Patriots' philosophies morphing back to a simpler time
Part 2 of 9: New England Patriots' offensive philosophy - Heavy on substance, not sexy style
Part 3 of 9: Patriots surround Brady with talent, just not how most envisioned

Follow Michael on twitter: @MichaelHammpub

No comments:

Post a Comment