Last season the Patriots got contributions from a number of running backs. Early in the season it was Stevan Ridley carrying the load, but then he was lost for the year with a torn ACL and missed the final 10 games. At that point it was unknown Jonas Gray who stepped forward, culminating in a 201-yard effort at Indy on national television.
Then veteran LeGarrette Blount returned from Pittsburgh and emerged as the team's lead back down the stretch, providing some tough yards between the tackles as well as near the goal line.
But for all of those ball carriers, a strong argument could be made for Shane Vereen as the team's most valuable running back. Vereen served mostly as the team's passing back and was quite productive both catching the ball and as an occasional change-of-pace runner.
The problem for the 2015 Patriots is some of those members are no longer with the team and the ones that remain – as well as the newcomers – have some questions. Blount is back and will serve a one-game suspension to open the season. He also hasn't been the full-time lead back for an entire season as his career high in carries came as a rookie in 2010 with 201. He is the logical choice to lead the committee but it remains to be seen if he can carry the load.
Behind him are Gray and Tyler Gaffney, the latter spending his entire rookie season on injured reserve with the Patriots. Both are largely untested heading into the season.
The real questions come in the passing game as the offense searches for Vereen's replacement. Second-year back James White saw spot duty as a rookie, appearing in just three games all season. Former Saint Travares Cadet signed as a free agent, and he has some experience as a receiver but not as much in terms of blocking. The same could be said of former Eagle Dion Lewis, a 5-8 scatback entering his fourth season. Veteran Brandon Bolden provides experience both as a ball carrier and pass catcher, but most of his work has come on special teams.
With those options in place, this week's Samsonite Make Your Case question is: Which running back will be the most important to the team's success in 2015?
PFW's Andy Hart says …
The real answer to this question is the passing-back role in general. Whoever takes over for Shane Vereen, and joins the line of succession that led from Kevin Faulk to Danny Woodhead, will be a major key to the Patriots overall offense and passing attack.
White was clearly drafted with the Vereen role in mind when he was picked in the fourth round a year ago. He did basically nothing as a rookie. He will be battling Travaris Cadet and others for the job. Brandon Bolden may be in the mix as well. But White would seemingly have the most youthful potential and upside if he can make a big leap from what was essentially a red-shirt rookie season.
If the passing-back role isn't up to par for the Patriots in 2015 it will be a big blow to the offense as a whole. White needs to prove he has the right stuff for the job in his sophomore campaign and show the talent he displayed in a stellar career at Wisconsin.
PFW's Paul Perillo says …
As long as the Patriots have Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski available the passing game will be their key to victory. The offense has proven to be quite productive over the years with that tandem leading the way, and I don't expect things to change much this year, even if Brady is forced to serve all or part of his suspension.
With that in mind I believe the running back position can be ably managed by Blount, who has proven to be a good fit in this offense and has provided solid production as the team's lead back on a limited basis in the past. This season Blount may be asked to do a bit more given the lack of experienced depth around him, but he has the size and strength to hold up to that added workload.
The Patriots don't need a dynamic presence like Adrian Peterson hitting home runs all the time to carry the offense. As a complementary piece, Blount is more than capable and he will lead the team in rushing, touchdowns and will prove to be the most important back to the team's success in 2015.