The Patriots are no stranger to a shared backfield. Last season was a bit of an anomaly, as only two running backs were involved in the offense, and one of them rushed for more than 1,000 yards, the first time a Patriot did so since 2004.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead were revelations last season, combining for more than 2,000 total yards. Woodhead replaced Kevin Faulk as the team's third-down back and receiving specialist and Green-Ellis was a predominantly two-down back who excelled near the goal line en route to 13 TDs.
With Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk nearing the end of their careers, the Patriots addressed the RB position in the draft, as expected, selecting Shane Vereen in the second round and Stevan Ridley in the third.
Vereen and Ridley complement one another the way Green-Ellis and Woodhead do. Vereen has similar skills to Woodhead with good receiving skills and Ridley is a slashing, inside runner.
The question will be, assuming Vereen and Ridley prove they are ready for the pro game, how Bill Belichick balances the backfield. He won't want to ruin a good thing, which is what we saw last season from Green-Ellis and Woodhead and the league's ninth-ranked rushing attack, but Vereen and Ridley give him options to keep defenses on their toes.
I expect each to spell the veteran they are most similar to. Ridley can give a different look in short-yardage and goal-line situations, and Vereen can appear on third downs. One thing you could see is both Woodhead and Vereen being on the field in certain situations, giving Brady an extra receiving weapon.
Belichick is a big fan of both the "The Law Firm" and Woodhead, and it's going to be a guessing game early on in the season how to best shuffle through his backs.
In a perfect world, one of two things could happen. Belichick could stick with what worked last season and give Vereen, Ridley and Faulk very few touches during the season, allowing the rookies to develop. He also might find niches that Vereen and Ridley possess, allowing them to work into the offense and give the Patriots more weapons than they already have. In 2008 and ’09, the Patriots had at least four players rush for 269 yards or more. If the rookies are ready to go, there could be a similar type of split in production in 2011.
Belichick hopes he has one of those "good problems to have," in which Vereen and Ridley show they are serviceable rookies who deserve to be on the field. He would have no problem if the team didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher, there's a reason it had been six seasons since that occurred. In a best-case scenario, the Patriots have a very effective rushing attack to open the door for Tom Brady that can utilize all the talents Belichick has on his RB depth chart.