INDIANAPOLIS – It wasn't long ago when it appeared the Patriots were setting themselves up for the long run at the running back position. Bill Belichick used picks in consecutive picks in the second and third rounds to select Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. Less than four years later the team could find itself dipping back into the running back pool once again.
Both Vereen and Ridley are set to become free agents next month, and in Ridley's case he'll be doing some while rehabbing from a torn ACL suffered in a Week 6 win at Buffalo. While that injury might make it easier for the Patriots to retain Ridley, given the lack of free agent dollars he's like to garner on the open market, clearly the Patriots cannot rely on him in 2015.
Conversely, Vereen may have priced himself out of New England based on a solid if unspectacular season to go along with a terrific Super Bowl. Vereen caught 11 passes against the Seahawks with the whole world watching, and that came after he established career highs in rushing yards (391), attempts (96), receptions (52) and receiving yards (447). Those numbers could make him a valuable commodity come March.
Vereen appears ready to cash in as well. According to a Boston Herald report, the former Cal star is looking for $5 million annually in his new deal, and he won't likely get that kind of cash in New England, particularly given his part-time role in the Patriots backfield.
The Patriots generally haven't been willing to pony up for running backs. Danny Woodhead was in a similar position as Vereen just two years ago and was offered little more than the minimum before leaving for San Diego. Last year LeGarrette Blount was allowed to walk despite the modest two-year, $3.95 million deal he signed with the Steelers.
If Vereen is to be back he'll need to pull back from his reported demands significantly, and even if he does return the Patriots are still likely to be in the running back market. Blount re-signed midseason after basically quitting his way off the Steelers and he's under contract for 2015. Rookie James White was barely active so envisioning him replacing Vereen's third-down role is a bit of a stretch based on his season-long inactivity.
What it all means is the Patriots project to have Blount, White and Jonas Gray as running backs under contract in 2015, plus fullback James Develin, who almost certainly will return as an exclusive rights free agent. Even if Ridley is back Belichick will almost certainly be parsing through what is considered to be a very strong crop of runners.
NFLDraftScout.com lists 27 running backs with potential draft grades and when the fullbacks are added in 36 in all were invited to the Combine. It will be interesting to see if the recent trend of having none selected in the first round continues. The last time any running backs were taken in the first round was back in 2012 when Trent Richardson (third), Doug Martin (31st) and David Wilson (32nd) were selected.
There is a talented group of players who believe that trend will stop this year, and unlike many of the boasting athletes that inhabit the Combine on an annual basis some of the running backs may be able to back up their words.
The top players on the list are Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon (6-1, 215) and Georgia's Todd Gurley (6-1, 222), both of whom received first-round grades from NFLDraftScout. Gurley's status is particularly intriguing since he tore his ACL in November and is currently in the midst of rehab, although he stated emphatically that he will be ready to play this season.
When asked about Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, who made a miraculous comeback from a torn ACL late in the 2012 season and rushed for more than 2,000 yards the following year, Gurley replied, "Adrian Peterson is a freak of nature, and my goal is to be a freak of nature as well."
Gordon is the latest in a string of highly productive backs for the Badgers. He follows Montee Ball and the Patriots White, which is one reason he chose to remain in Madison rather than forego his senior season a year ago.
"I wanted to become more of a complete running back," Gordon said of his decision to return. "I didn't need Montee or James have to come in for pass protection."
Gordon racked up 2,587 rushing yards in his final year, falling just 41 yards shy of Barry Sanders' all-time single season record set in 1988. He also turned in a 408-yard performance – in just three quarters – during a win over Nebraska. That effort broke LaDainian Tomlinson's single-game record, but just two weeks later Oklahoma's Samaje Perrine topped that mark with 427 yards.
As the unofficial leader of the class, Gordon believes this year's group can break back into the first round for the first time in three years.
"It's a great class," he said. "I think we definitely have the talent to go first. It's a passing league but it's hard to say we're a devalued position. I can't answer why anyone would think that, but we have the ability to change that way of thinking."
This group is by no means top heavy however. Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (5-8, 198), Miami's Duke Johnson (5-9, 207), Boise State's Jay Ajayi (6-0, 221) and Indiana's Tevin Coleman (6-0, 210) are all talented backs who could be available in the second round.
Abdullah is small in stature but runs with a solid base. He's extremely quick and isn't afraid to lower his shoulders despite his size but will need to improve as a blocker if he's going to be able to contribute in the passing game, which will be a necessity because his size will prevent him from carry a heavy load.
"I'm in a development stage right now," Abdullah said, who earned MVP honors at the Senior Bowl. "I still have so much to learn. I haven't maximized my full potential yet."
While he admitted he needed to work on his pass protection techniques, he added that he feels quite comfortable in the passing game. He cited Warrick Dunn, the versatile back who enjoyed a tremendous career with the Bucs and Falcons, as someone he looked up to.
When asked if he watched much of Vereen, a guy he could potentially replace in New England, his eyes lit up.
"He's nasty. I watch a lot of his film to help out my route running," Abdullah said. "He runs the best option route in the NFL right now. He does a great job of stemming the linebacker, snapping them off and getting some separation. Outstanding hands. He's guy who's going to be in the league a long time.
"I never want to put myself in just one role. I'd like to be a guy that can play on first down, on second down, on third down but if a team drafts me and says [third down] is what they need me to do I'm fine with that."
Johnson is another undersized back who runs bigger than his frame. He also watches Vereen with admiration and said he felt he could do a lot of similar things.
"I can always improve on everything but I feel I can catch the ball well. I have a willingness to block and with the right technique and coaching staff I don't feel like doing those things will be a problem," said Johnson, who appeared at the podium wearing a pink University of Miami patch under his left eye in honor of the mother of one of his college friends who is a breast cancer survivor.
Moving further down the line, Alabama's T.J. Yeldon (6-1, 226), South Carolina's Mike Davis (5-9, 223) and Minnesota's David Cobb (5-11, 229) are enjoyed productive careers and in year's past they may have represented the top of the line.
Yeldon played for Belichick ally Nick Saban and fought through several nagging injuries in 2014. Coaching is one reason he believes he's suited for the NFL.
"That's where Coach Saban came from and he brings that NFL mentality," Yeldon said. "The style he uses gets us ready for the NFL" he said while adding that he enjoys watching Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell, one of the game's most versatile running backs.
Cobb is more of a traditional between-the-tackles type who carried the Gophers limited offense. He's excited to be part of such a deep class.
"I think you want to be part of a great running back class because you want to be able to stick your chest out and be proud to be among so many great players," Cobb said. "It's great to compete against the best."
Injuries caused Davis' production to slip a bit last year under Steve Spurrier, but circumstances beyond his control forced him to leave the Gamecocks a year early.
"As I was getting ready for my last game my Mom got an eviction notice, so right then I knew it was time to come out to help provide for my family," explained Davis. "In my mind I hope to be the first running back taken. I think I'm the best running back in this draft."
The later rounds should provide some opportunities to pick up talented backs as well. Auburn's Cameron Artis-Payne (5-10, 212), LSU's Terrence Magee (5-9, 220), Florida State's Karlos Williams (6-1, 225), Mississippi State's Josh Robinson (5-9, 215) and Louisville's Michael Dyer (5-9, 215) could represent value on Day 3 of the draft.
Although running back is rarely a position that Belichick places much stock in, the combination of quality backs available and the potential need to replace a pair of recent draft picks will put the position under the spotlight in 2015.