Ever since Corey Dillon set the franchise single-season rushing record in 2004 the Patriots have largely been a running-back-by-committee team. Whether it was Dillon and Laurence Maroney or more recently the likes of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris and Danny Woodhead sharing the load, New England's ground game could feature a different lead man virtually any week.
Green-Ellis has been the front man for the past two seasons, leading the team in rushing and touchdowns in 2010 and 2011. Now he's gone to Cincinnati after signing with the Bengals as a free agent. That leaves last year's rookie tandem of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. The former was the team's second-leading rusher a year ago while the latter suffered a hamstring injury in training camp and never was able to become a regular contributor, managing just 15 carries in mop up duty all season. Also returning is the versatile Danny Woodhead, who picks up his share of carries out of spread formations but isn't likely to assume a larger role in traditional running sets due to his size.
Joining that trio is veteran Joseph Addai, who signed as a free agent from Indianapolis. Addai has been a productive back when healthy but that hasn't frequently been the case recently. If he can stay in the lineup he could provide some pop out of the backfield and contribute to the committee.
Fullbacks Spencer Larsen and Tony Fiametta, as well as running backs Eric Kettani and rookie Brandon Boldin round out the roster at the position, but it would certainly be a stunning development if any of them emerged as a legitimate candidate for carries.
So, this week's Samsonite Make Your Case asks: Which of these backs will eventually emerge as the team's leading rusher?
PFW's Andy Hart says ...
Ridley is the heir to Green-Ellis' job as New England's top back. As a rookie a year ago he showed plenty of spark and power. He showed the ability to maximize runs and make plays.
Unfortunately, he also showed a slight tendency to lose the ball. But that's something that many backs have dealt with and overcome in the NFL. Look no further than New England icon Kevin Faulk, who went from a guy with ball security issues to one of the most consistent, sure-handed, trusted offensive playmakers of the Bill Belichick era.
Ridley's average of 5.1 yards a carry last year in limited action was the best on the team, better than that of third-down back Danny Woodhead. He was the only New England back with a run longer than 20 yards, of which he had five. He also had 11 of the team's 29 runs longer than 10 yards, reaching that number on just 87 total carries.
Ridley is clearly the best mix of potential and production on the depth chart. Addai was good in the best offense in the NFL when he was healthy half a decade ago. Shane Vereen needs to prove he has the NFL potential to live up to his second-round draft spot after doing nothing as a rookie. Woodhead is coming off a season in which his production was cut nearly in half and clearly doesn't have the frame to be a top back.
The bottom line is that the Patriots will likely still have a committee backfield in which the team's leading rusher may only pick up 600-800 yards. But in the end, the talented Ridley is the best guy to get the bulk of the carries.
PFW's Paul Perillo says ...
For starters, I don't see anyone emerging as a true lead back on this Patriots offense. As long as Tom Brady remains his productive self, the offense begins and ends with his right arm. That said, someone has to lead the team in rushing regardless of how many times New England actually chooses to run the football. I think Addai will be that somebody.
He had some productive seasons in Indianapolis, including a pair of 1,000-yard campaigns operating in a pass-happy offense similar to the Patriots. He's used to be ready to maximize limited opportunities, which almost certainly will be the case in New England. And he also has good hands and a reputation as an excellent blocker, traits that should allow him to stay on the field more often and potentially lead to more carries down the road.
The one problem with Addai has been injuries, and truth be told health could actually eliminate him from the equation altogether. If he's not able to get and stay on the field – he didn't take part in some OTA work earlier in the spring – there's a chance he won't even make the club.
But if he is healthy he's the most talented back currently on the roster. He has the most experience and is probably the most versatile as well. Assuming he acclimates quickly to the system, Addai will eventually emerge as the top back and lead the Patriots in rushing, albeit with a modest total.
Now it's the fans turn to cast their vote for this week's Samsonite Make Your Case poll.