COMMENTARY | Much of the preseason attention for the New England Patriots has focused on their revamped receiving corps, the absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski, and quarterback Tim Tebow's quest to make the team.
Lost in the shuffle is third-year running back Stevan Ridley, who had an excellent sophomore season last year. He will be counted on heavily again in 2013, and fans should be excited to see exactly how much better he can become.
Following his selection in the third round of the 2011 draft out of LSU, Ridley had an uneven rookie season, coming primarily off the bench. He rushed for only 441 yards and a score, but did average a promising 5.1 yards per attempt.
He took over as the starter last year, breaking out in impressive fashion. He piled up 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground, cracking 100 or more yards in four games. He ranked seventh in the league in rushing yards, and tied the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson for third in rushing scores.
The only blemish on Ridley's record was his four fumbles during the regular season. He had another in the playoffs against the Baltimore Ravens when he was knocked out cold on a rush attempt. This proved to be his last time on the field.
Despite his inauspicious end to the season, the 24-year-old is still a rising star.
Some believed the running back's success was due in large part to taking advantage of teams playing off the ball in deference to star quarterback Tom Brady. Citing a study conducted by Pro Football Focus, MassLive.com's Nick Underhill proved that wasn't true.
The data showed Ridley faced eight or more defenders in the box on 22.07 percent of his rushes last year, which was just a tick below the league average of 23.25 percent.
Surprisingly, he dealt with a stacked box more often than top backs like Marshawn Lynch, Ray Rice, Doug Martin and Jamaal Charles. While playing with a quarterback like Brady can never hurt, the evidence shows Ridley and his offensive line had the most say in his impressive 2012 season.
Making a better connection with Brady could actually help Ridley reach the next level in his development.
The passing game has never been Ridley's forte. He totaled just 17 receptions during his three seasons at LSU, and has just nine for 64 yards in his two years with New England (including six catches for 51 yards in 2012).
While backup Shane Vereen appears to be the Patriots' top pass-catching option at running back, Ridley could help himself by diversifying his skill set. Such limited production in the passing game makes it easier to anticipate the plays being run when he is on the field and allow defenders to focus on him even more.
Ridley is well aware of what he must do to get better, as he told NESN.com's Doug Kyed. "You have to focus on all aspects of the game -- be an all-around player," he said. "You can't just run the ball, you can't just catch the ball, you can't just be a blocker. If you can be a complete back, that's the best back that you can be. Especially in this offense."
Although his fumbles drew attention last year, especially because of the sensational nature of the last ball he put on the ground, they are nothing to be truly alarmed about. Peterson, Lynch and LeSean McCoy all had the same number of fumbles in 2012. Additionally, surer hands typically come with more experience in the NFL.
Ridley has dedicated himself to getting better. He attempted to bulk up during the offseason but ultimately went back to his customary playing weight of 220 pounds to maintain his same quickness and burst. He explained to the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe: "I came in (to minicamp) a little bit heavier than I was supposed to and had to get a few pounds off, but besides that, I trained hard. I think I'm ready to go."
It helps that he plays with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. As the seventh running back selected in his draft, he wasn't even the first at the position chosen by the Patriots that year. Vereen was taken the round before him, but Ridley has been able to sprint past him as the team's lead back. Remembering how he came to the team will serve him well in motivating the remainder of his career.
Having proven he can handle and succeed with full-time touches, Ridley will get a chance to shoulder the load again this year. If he continues to develop and make the most of his opportunities, there is no telling what his ceiling may be.
In addition to the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports. He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter @historianandrew.
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