The New England Patriots running back situation is one of great interest in dynasty leagues at the moment. After all, New England is one of the most explosive teams in the NFL and anyone who rises from the depth chart to lead the team in carries could be a viable weapon and a key to a dynasty league championship as early as this season. The problem isn’t just about seeing the fantasy viability in the New England backfield – it could be simply about choosing the right player who will eventually emerge.
Last year, the Patriots shocked most draft pundits by spending two high draft picks on running backs as they added Shane Vereen in the second round and Stevan Ridley shortly after him in the third. After losing BenJarvus Green-Ellis to Cincinnati via free agency this season, both these players are squarely in the fantasy crosshairs.
With this situation, there are three very distinctive schools of thought in regards to the dynasty value of these players. Each of these lines of thinking has merit, so we’ll break down all three.
The Case for Stevan Ridley
While Vereen received much of the press and the bulk of the attention in dynasty league drafts last year, it was Ridley who produced on the field in 2011. He had an impressive 441 rushing yards on just 87 carries – good for an average of over five yards per carry. In addition to his stellar numbers, Ridley showed impressive and unexpected quickness for a player who is 5’11” and weighs over 220 pounds. Most thought he was simply a power back, but he proved that line of thinking was completely unfounded.
Amazingly, Ridley flew under the radar after an impressive career at LSU that featured him rushing for 1,147 yards and 15 touchdowns during his final season. Many draft scouts downgraded him based on his lack of ability in the passing game and a perceived lack of mental capacity. Based on how he grasped the Patriot offense, what does that say about Chad Ochocinco?
Regardless, the case for targeting Ridley is pretty obvious – he has the physical make-up of a player who could be a featured back, with the production last year to prove he belongs in the NFL. Even if the Pats decided to run a true committee approach with their backfield, it would be Ridley who would likely take the role voided by Green-Ellis, who was good for 24 touchdowns over the past two seasons. You’d be pretty hard pressed to find someone who thinks BGE is an incredible or rare talent as well.
If BGE can post those types of numbers with the Patriots, what could Ridley do in the same type of role?
The Case for Shane Vereen
While Stevan Ridley received a nice workload as a rookie, much of that can be attributed to the hamstring injuries suffered by Vereen, not in Ridley being more talented or worthy of the playing time. After a waste of a rookie season that saw him only get 15 carries, Vereen is finally healthy. In addition, reports are surfacing that it was Vereen, not Ridley, who received more of the work with the first team at the Patriots opening practices this week.
There’s also the obvious fact that the Patriots most certainly liked Vereen enough last year to take him ahead of Ridley in the draft. While they’re very different players and his draft status doesn’t guarantee him anything, it does show the Patriots were ultra-high on Vereen’s talent. After all, he’s more of a complete back on paper than Ridley and adds a level of explosion that’s unmatched by anyone on the depth chart at the moment.
When you consider the Patriots also benched Ridley on a few occasions due to his propensity to fumble, it’s really difficult to say this is undoubtedly Ridley’s job and keep any type of straight face. With a camp battle brewing, sometimes you just have to take the more talented player and on paper, that seems to be Vereen.
The Case for Neither
This may be the strongest case of all.
The Patriots are notorious for riding a hot hand at running back or employing a confusing committee approach that’s inconsistent enough to drive fantasy owners crazy. At this point, the depth chart has Ridley, Vereen, Danny Woodhead, Joseph Addai and Brandon Bolden. While Addai may just be insurance and Bolden is likely just a camp body, it’s tough to count any player out at this point. Just check out the leading rushers for the Patriots over the past ten years:
2011 = BenJarvus Green-Ellis (667 yards)
2010 = BenJarvus Green-Ellis (1,008 yards)
2009 = Laurence Maroney (757 yards)
2008 = Sammy Morris (727 yards)
2007 = Laurence Maroney (835 yards)
2006 = Corey Dillon (812 yards)
2005 = Corey Dillon (733 yards)
2004 = Corey Dillon (1,635 yards)
2003 = Antowain Smith (642 yards)
2002 = Antowain Smith (982 yards)
That’s a grand total of just TWO 1,000 yard seasons posted from a New England running back over the last ten seasons. When you take out the magical 2004 season of Corey Dillon, the leading rusher for the Patriots averaged just 796 yards per season over the last decade. Include it and they’ve averaged just 880 yards – not exactly a total you can pencil in and hope to win a title with.
Face it, this is Tom Brady’s team and the committee approach used by the Patriots rarely lends itself to providing truly consistent value to running backs – they’re already on record as saying they’re looking to ride that hot hand and that’s bad news for fantasy owners of Vereen or Ridley. Touchdowns are extremely tough to predict and the only time a running back from New England truly dominated was in 2004 when Dillon had a career season. While Vereen and Ridley are both talented players, it’s tough to see either of them dominating in any fashion close to that.
The Patriots backfield is a source of both controversy and mystery in dynasty circles right now. While some owners feel Ridley has already shown the ability to be a productive player and is easily the best player of the group to own, many others feel Vereen needs to be the prime target of dynasty owners because he simply didn’t get his chance last season. There’s an even larger contingency of people who are avoiding the situation altogether.
Personally, I’m on the Ridley bandwagon. I’ve seen enough from him to make me pretty excited about his future. That being said, I’d jump off that bandwagon at the first sign of danger!
Where do you stand?