COMMENTARY| The New England Patriots appear set with emerging star Stevan Ridley as their starting running back but still need to determine the rest of their backfield rotation. Shane Vereen should have the inside track as the team's next third-down back, and could flourish if he wins that job.
Vereen is a third-year player from the University of California. At 5'9" and 205 pounds, he is a bit on the smaller side but is significantly larger than Danny Woodhead, the player he would be replacing as the third-down back if he can seize the role during training camp.
Woodhead, who spent the past three seasons as a productive backup in New England, departed this offseason after signing as a free agent with the San Diego Chargers. His ability to pick up tough yards on the ground and as a receiver out of the backfield (747 combined rushing and receiving yards last year) is a crucial void that will need to be filled.
Although the Patriots already have running back Brandon Bolden returning, and brought in LeGarrette Blount and Leon Washington during the offseason, it's Vereen who should have first crack as the primary backup behind Ridley.
A former second-round pick, Vereen has flashed intriguing but inconsistent talent during his time with the Patriots. He played in just five games as a rookie, but rebounded to post 251 rushing yards, 149 receiving yards and four total touchdowns in 15 contests last year.
Vereen knows replacing Woodhead won't be easy. He told The Boston Globe's Shalise Manza Young, "It's going to be hard to replace a guy like. He had a lot of experience. He had a lot of knowledge. He's a smart player. His role was pretty key to the team. I learned a lot from him."
An effective third-down back needs to be a proficient blocker against the blitz. They also need to have an equal ability to take the ball up the middle as much as they do to split out wide for a possible pass. Such versatility is what made Woodhead, and Kevin Faulk before him, so effective in that role.
Vereen has already shown he can make things happen when he has the ball in his hands. He rushed for 42 yards and caught two passes for 91 yards and a touchdown in a Week 12 win against the New York Jets last season.
Blitz coverage and blocking are the areas where he has struggled to find consistency going back to when he came out of college, according to Pro Football Weekly. The stakes have never been so high for him to master the skills, so hopefully this will be the season he finally puts everything together.
Something else in Vereen's favor is that none of his primary competition has his all-around package of skills.
The speedy Washington will be 31 when the season starts. He has had limited reps at running back the past several seasons, and is likely better suited to reinvigorate New England's anemic return game.
Blount is a 247-pound bruiser, but has only caught 21 total passes in his three NFL seasons. His value may come from being an occasional change of pace over the smaller backs on the roster.
Bolden, an undrafted free agent in 2012, showed promise last season but was also suspended for four games following a positive test for PEDs. He played sparingly upon his return, and his standing is a bit of an unknown entering training camp.
Ridley explained to WEEI's Christopher Price that he believes Vereen is the right man for the job. "For Shane to see a guy leave and his role to open up even more, I think he's going to jump on the moment and capture the moment. You look at him last year, what he did toward the end, he was blooming late and Shane's a hell of a player. I think he's going to be ready to go, and I'm excited about it."
If Vereen is half as enthusiastic as Ridley, he should have a leg up on taking over as the third-down back this season. His success will hinge on being able to become a more complete player and embrace the little things that are so important to a successful team. He will have the opportunity but it will be up to him to see what he can make of it.
In addition to the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has covered the Boston Red Sox for Bleacher Report and writes his own blog. He has also appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts, and written on the topics of sports and history for a number of print publications and websites.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter @historianandrew
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Shane Vereen
- Danny Woodhead
- Stevan Ridley