Thursday, March 26, 2015

Reloading The Musket - Part 2: Patriots' Backfield Full Of One-Dimensional Talent...Except One

The New England Patriots run the football with a purpose.

That purpose can change from game-to-game and, indeed, quarter to quarter, but there are two consistencies that head ball coach Bill Belichick and boy-wonder offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can always count on:  They can always run the ball effectively to close out a game, and they never leave themselves limited in what they can do on the ground by slacking on options.
Gaffney has the tools to be an every down back for New England

The four-minute offense is a staple of Belichick's concept-driven version of the team's Erhardt-Perkins philosophy that carries with it the axiom, "Pass to score, run to win."

What this means, in a nutshell, is that New England will use it's redundant and aesthetically displeasing ball-control passing game to gain a lead, then use the even more redundant and aesthetically displeasing running game to grind out the clock to ensure victory.

Which is the point, after all.  It may not be all that explosive to the layman's eye, but to those who get off on fundamental football and get just as excited over a power run that picks up three yards and a first down as they do a 40 yard strike for a touchdown, it is a beautiful thing - and in the end and looking up at the scoreboard, one has to marvel at how many points the Patriots have put up with such a methodical, clock-control attack.

As a result, fantasy owners avoid the New England running backs like the plague - and for good reason as the Patriots' leading rusher in 2014 was second-year man Jonas Gray, a project that Belichick activated from the practice squad just in time to turn him loose on the defensively challenged Indianapolis Colts, against whom he gained half of his 412 yards on the season.

The other backs?  Well, power back Stevan Ridley was on pace for a decent year as the lead back until he ripped his knee to shreds in week 6, while third down back Shane Vereen chipped in with 391 and week 11 pick up LeGarrette Blount added almost 300 more - yet, despite the lack of a true number one back, and Belichick's seeming lack of interest in labeling one, the Patriots still won the Super Bowl.

That's not a recipe for success on any other team but New England, and it's hard to argue with their sustained success over the past decade that Belichick has been running with the same M.O. - and there's no reason to believe that their philosophy is going to change now, no matter how bitchy and whiny the laymen and unindoctrinated become...

...even in light of the free agency and injury hits the Patriots have taken early in the NFL's annual shopping spree.  Of the backs on the team in 2014, all but two are under contract for 2015 - with both Ridley and Vereen left to test the free agency waters.  Ridley has yet to find work, as his knee injury has severely limited his market, but Vereen is already gone.

There has been much lamentation and gnashing of teeth in regard to the Patriots losing passing back Shane Vereen in free agency, and while the 4th year man from California saved his best performance as a Patriot for his last performance as a Patriot, it also holds true that the Patriots knew that there was a good chance that they would lose Vereen, and would have made an effort to re-sign him were his replacement wasn't already on the roster.

Doomsayers will point to his 52 receptions in the regular season being irreplaceable, and that number does rank among in the top five among running backs in 2014, but Vereen was also the only of those backs whose primary duties encompassed the passing game, while the backs in front of him were all lead backs.

This is not to discount how effective Vereen became as the season wore on, but it also has to be remembered that Vereen's production in 2014 had more to do with him being able to maintain his health throughout the season than anything else, as his talent was always evident, but was something that his durability couldn't match consistently.

Vereen ran effectively and was fearless between the tackles, but his value to the Patriots was as more of a pass catcher, as he lacks the size to be an every down, workhorse type back - causing him to be one-dimensional and the New England offense somewhat more predictable as to their play calling on third down.

In fact, the Patriots' running backs all have defined skill sets that make them one-dimensional - and therefore causing the play-calling to be somewhat predictable - what with LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray being strictly power backs, James White and newly acquired Tavaris Cadet as third down presences, while Brandon Bolden's value to the team is primarily as a core-four special teamer...

...which leaves redshirt sophomore Tyler Gaffney as the lone multi-tool back for New England going into the draft.  Picked up off the waiver wire last preseason when the Carolina Panthers tried to slip him onto their IR with a torn lateral meniscus, Gaffney has no NFL experience, but was an absolute load in carrying the football at Stanford before the Panthers spent a 6th round flier on a kid that took a break from football after his junior season to concentrate on a baseball career after being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012.

But after one season in the Pirate's farm system he returned to Stanford and posted over 1700 yards and 21 touchdowns for the Cardinal.  One season with incredible numbers such as those raise eyebrows, but the concern over lack of experience on either the college or pro level has to be taken into account.

Which begs the question, will the Patriots target a running back in the draft?

With the experience of both Blount as a workhorse and Cadet as a third down back, the Patriots could start the regular season right now and run their offense without much of a decline in production, and there is plenty of competition behind those two to make camp interesting, but the main focus is probably going to be whether Gaffney can ascend to at least split time with those two.

If they think he can - or even if they have plans with White to take on a bigger role - then the Patriots will most likely focus their draft capital elsewhere.  But make no mistake, Belichick picked up Gaffney because he is multi-dimensional, which would make the offense a little less predictable and bring the play actions into play on every down as he has superb hands out of the backfield and is instinctive and tough in picking up the blitz.

Regardless, there are some prospects coming out of college that make up a decent draft class, and while running back should not be one of the Patriots' priorities, one can never say never when it comes to predicting what Belichick will do on draft day.

Realistically, names like Georgia's Todd Gurley and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon will be off the board long before New England selects at #32, and it's probably far-fetched to consider that they would take a back with their top pick anyway, which puts any running back prospect no earlier than the second day, and most likely on the third day of the draft.

Jay Ajayi - 6' 0", 221 lbs, Boise State (2nd - 3rd round)

Running for nearly 1700 yards and 25 touchdowns, Ajayi is Gaffney, but with James White type feet in the open field.  He has excellent hands, catching 45 balls for 436 yards and four more scores.  The Patriots could use his versatility and the rookie salary numbers that come with him, optimizing his skill set as a two-in-one threat with good speed and incredible balance.

The downside is that he has a tendency to put the ball on the ground, which is something that Belichick can and will crucify running backs for...

Duke Johnson - 5' 9", 205lbs, Miami (2nd - 3rd rounds)

Johnson would be higher on the boards if he was a willing blocker in pass protection, as he is a liability in this area. Electric, video game type moves with a second and third gear to gain the corner, Johnson is a powerful north - south runner when he needs to be and has the vision and fluid hips to cut back against the grain better than any runner in the class.

He struggled with injuries the past two seasons, so his durability is in question - and his aforementioned lack of blocking skills makes him one-dimensional and just a part-time player in the Patriots' scheme.

T. J. Yeldon - 6' 2", 222lbs, Alabama (2nd - 3rd round)

Yeldon has all of the tools to be as effective as Blount or his former Steelers' teammate LeVeon Bell, and has a similar running style, yet with a bit more speed.  Alabama trusted him to play three downs and many scouts have him as a better potential pro than Wisconsin's Gordon.  Though smooth coming out of the backfield and a monster between the tackles where he can make himself skinny and invisible to the second level, he runs too upright - like Ridley - and takes some nasty hits...also needs some work picking up the blitz, but is a willing participant in blocking schemes.

David Johnson - 6' 1", 224 lbs, Northern Iowa (3rd round)

A workout warrior who still shows enough on the field to warrant a second or third day selection.  Very smooth out of the backfield and with his size and speed is a matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties in the pattern - is a capable Vereen-like runner with the bulk to carry inside, though he tends to break most everything outside.

Not a big finisher on his carries and blocking could use improvement, but overall Johnson could be a second day steal - as some even project that his skill set makes him more of an H-back in the right system.

Mike Davis - 5' 9", 217 lbs, South Carolina (3rd - 4th round)

A lead-type back who gets stronger as the game progresses, Davis needs 15-20 carries to get full value out of him.  A punishing north-south runner who initiates contact, he will pick up yards after contact and has long speed to take the ball to the house is he gains separation in the passing game.  Davis runs good routes and has good hands, and is an accomplished blocker in pass protection.

Others who could work include LSU running backs Terrence MaGee and Kenny Hilliard (4th rounders), Louisville power back Dominique Brown (4-5 round), North Dakota State's John Crockett (6th round) and Florida's Matt Jones (6th round), Mississippi State's Josh Robinson (7th - UDFA).

Perpetually among the most "average" running teams in the league, Statistics don't come close to telling of the full range of success the running backs in the Patriots' system enjoy, as winning trumps most things and winning Super Bowls trumps everything.

Last season was a perfect example, so don't expect the Patriots to mess with success very much, if at all.

Part 3 of this series looks at pass catchers in the draft and how the Patriots could improve their overall depth.

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