In the 2006 NFL draft, the New England Patriots selected running back Laurence Maroney – and the position has been in a state of turmoil ever since.
Even now, with their stable of young greyhounds behind quarterback Tom Brady, it is not all that it could be, and losing a key element of the backfield is enough to make people that pay attention to such things cringe at the prospect at life without their best runner…
In the 2006 season, Maroney represented a departure from Patriots’ running backs in the past.
He was greased lightning once he got loose at the second level, but that happened too seldom to make it worth the roster spot. He supplanted an aging Corey Dillon in the starting role in 2007, but he and his electric speed could never dance out of the backfield – nor stay healthy – long enough to put that speed to use.
And that’s not what this offense needed anyway, and still doesn’t. What this offense does need is the bruising back, like Dillon, like Antowain Smith – guys that would lower their shoulder, keep their legs driving and move the sticks.
It’s an attitude, really.
It’s the attitude that the rest of the Patriots offense has with the best line in football, the most diverse and versatile tight end corps in the NFL and perhaps the greatest quarterback to ever play the game leading the whole thing. But it’s been running back by committee for the past eight years, and it really hasn’t scared anyone.
It hasn’t risen to the occasion to make opposing offensive coaches take big risks on 3rd and long and even on 4th down to keep the ball away from New England, instead they will punt and fall back on their defense to get the ball back, because they know if they take away what the Patriots do best on offense – throwing the ball – chances are the Patriots won’t be able to run down the clock before kicking the ball back to them.
How many times have we seen it? How many times have we seen the Patriots not able to run out the clock, giving the ball back to the opposition with just enough time to deliver a dagger?
Given, the Patriots haven’t lost many of those games in the past eight years, but the ones that they have lost were comebacks by teams who would have never had the opportunity to do so had the Patriots been able to effectively manage the clock…and all in the most clutch of situations…
…and all of this goes back to the coaching staff and the way they choose to use personnel in the running game and how their play calling at times will become their enemy.
With the talent on this team, the Patriots should be able to line up and Brady yell across to the defense “Here’s what’s coming – now try and stop us.” – but they can’t do that without that attitude from the running game.
Danny Woodhead was a guy like that. Danny Woodhead is still a guy like that, so his departure for what amounts to peanuts in terms of football salary to a team that has virtually no chance of doing anything but golfing in January is puzzling to say the least and disconcerting to say the most.
Dillon was almost a half a foot taller and 30 pounds heavier than Woodhead, but their similar running style suggests that both carried the same mentality to the position: Hit the hole hard, make a move then run folks over and make sure you get to the sticks and stay in bounds.
If there is one hit that the Patriots took this offseason that could potentially come back to bite them in the backside, it’s letting Woodhead go to San Diego for what amounts to chump change – and the Chargers’ new braintrust has already mentioned that Woodhead will be used much more than the Patriots used him…
…and so Woodhead takes his five yards per carry and his 10 yards per reception and his bulldozer mentality coupled with his 4.33 speed to one of the most dysfunctional franchises in football that has no offensive line, a quarterback on the decline and zero chance of being anything but a road bump in the next couple of years.
How is it that the organization let the perfect back for their system go to San Diego? Bob Kraft helped us to understand letting Welker get away, but Woody?
Regardless, this is not an indictment of Stevan Ridley, the Patriots starting running back. He tries so hard, bless his heart, but what the team is trying to do with him is going to get him killed. Sure, he ran for 1200 yards and 12 touchdowns, but his stiff, upright running style invites violent collisions, and even when he does try to power through he either gets knocked out, or fumbles – or both.
But perhaps Woodhead’s departure means that second year back Brandon Bolden get some looks. Another guy with some attitude and similar style, he showed much potential in his limited exposure last season before landing in the doghouse for getting suspended for testing positive for PED’s.
It most certainly will mean additional snaps for the speedy Shane Vereen, who will probably take on a role similar to Woodhead’s while also being split wide as a receiver on occasion.
Jeff Demps provides an unknown quantity in the backfield at this point and newly signed Leon Washington is almost exclusively a return man, so there are some question marks as to how the roster will fill out…
…but the question begs: Is this a position that the Patriots should address, or are they good with what they have? The bigger question may be, with just five draft picks, can they afford the luxury?
The answers are yes, maybe and no.
The position should be addressed, but what they have will probably be adequate and they have far more pressing needs than to spend a solid gold draft pick on one of the running backs in this year’s class…but just for the sake of due diligence….
LeVeon Bell, RB, Michigan State (3rd Round projection)
Big and Strong and well proportioned with with good balance and stays low to the ground through contact. More of a downhill athlete who picks up speed as he goes.
At 230 pounds is a load to bring down often carrying defenders. Can take over a game and take the will from would-be tacklers. Has speed moves that you wouldn’t expect from a ball carier of his size, willing to leave his feet to hurdle defenders and has an effective spin move. Active receiver with good awareness in pass protection to pick up blitzes. Led Big Ten in rushing in 2012 (1,793 yards) with three 200-yard performances.
If the Patriots were inclined to pick up a running back, this would be the guy and could be had in the late third round.
Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State (3rd Round Projection)
Very good speed and acceleration, not easy to catch from behind. Lowers his pads and tries to run over defenders, generating power from his fast momentum and running with a purpose. Very good balance to bounce off defenders and pick up a lot of yards after contact, finishing each carry.
Strong plant foot and lateral burst to accelerate quickly with springs in his legs. Looks to lower his pads and deliver hits with deceiving power and pop at the point of attack.
Finds the crease and gets north/south in a hurry. Very tough in pass protection to pick up the blitz and give up his body. Vocal leader and confident. Reliable receiver with 108 career receptions. Amassed 43 total touchdowns in his career, so has a nose for the end zone.
South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore would have topped this list, but after two serious knee injuries in as many seasons, to use one of the five draft picks on him would be risky beyond just blowing a draft pick – and he may never make it back to the dominating and punishing runner that he was.
But in the end, this is probably a position that won’t see much more turnover that it already has.