|Can James White take over the third down role left vacated by Vereen's departure?|
It was overshadowed by Revis Island relocating back to Jets, but the Patriots lost another major contributor to a New York rival this offseason in running back Shane Vereen. A 2011 second round pick, Vereen struggled with injuries his first two seasons, but emerged over the past two seasons as a valuable mismatch creator in the passing game. Finally healthy for a full season in 2015, Vereen's receiving skillset proved to be crucial in the Super Bowl, as he caught a team leading 11 of his 12 targets while gaining 58 of his 64 yards after the catch.
That performance earned him a nice payday from the Giants, where he figures to be a perfect fit in their uptempo offense. Meanwhile, the Patriots are left to fill a major void on their offense. Vereen wasn't a major factor in the running game, but he had 77 targets, 52 receptions and 447 yards in the regular season; no other back saw more than Brandon Bolden's six targets. That role as Brady's safety valve on passing downs meant major playing time. Vereen played 606 snaps in the regular season, 418 more than any other Patriots running back. His 38.8 snaps per game also exceeded all of his fellow running backs.
The Patriots have plenty of competition for the passing down back role, but no clear front runner entering training camp. In fact, there's very little certainty at the position, beyond LeGarrette Blount as a bruising early-down option. I'll be highlighting the competition for a depth spot as a "Big Back" to complement Blount tomorrow, and it's worth noting that both competitions will affect each other come cutdown day. With the team unlikely to keep more than four running backs (five if you count fullback James Develin), that final depth spot will likely come down to versatility. Backs with special teams versatility will likely get a boost given that added roster value on game day, as will backs who can play multiple offensive roles.
If we put additional stock in draft status, White becomes the frontrunner. A fourth round pick in last year's draft, White came advertised as a versatile, smart back with an NFL ready skillset as a pass catcher. All seemed well for him early on, as the rookie earned praise from his legendary quarterback and head coach throughout minicamps and the early stages of training camp.
However, things quickly changed once the pads came on against live competition. White turned in a dreadful preseason as a rusher, managing merely 2.8 yards per carry on his 29 attempts. Most alarmingly, he failed to force a single missed tackle in that workload, bringing forth more questions about whether his 5'10", 194 pound frame has enough power to break tackles at the NFL level. He was a bit better as a receiver, catching 4 of his 5 targets for 45 yards (11.3 per catch), but that was hardly enough to earn a role with Vereen healthy. As a result, White only saw live action in three games as a rookie: a now infamous blowout loss to Kansas City, a blowout win over Chicago, and the meaningless season finale against Buffalo.
White has the natural hands and route running ability to be a factor in the passing game, but he needs to prove he can hold up at his size in pass protection to earn that role. Adding some strength over the offseason could help with that. He also needs to show more explosiveness, as he failed to show enough burst to escape defenders with regularity as a rookie.
While he certainly needs to show improvement from year one to two, White does have a few factors going for him in this competition. His lauded intelligence should really pay dividends, as the offense is complex and both Brady and Belichick demand perfection assignment-wise. His patience as a runner should also show up more with a year to adjust to the higher level of competition. He also has some kick return experience and can fill in there in a pinch if need be.
Most importantly, White has the skillset to do at least a decent Vereen impression in the Pats offense. A reliable, smooth route-runner with steady hands, he makes all the sense in the world on paper as Vereen's replacement. It's not hard to think they drafted him in 2014 with Vereen's impending free agency in mind. It's just a matter of translating those skills into better and more consistent production on the field for him. Time will tell.
|Cadet in action against the Pats in 2013|
The biggest knock on Cadet so far in his young career is a lack of versatility. Of his 209 snaps last year, 192 came on passing downs. In three years, Cadet has only 11 career carries. Furthermore, he spent only seven snaps all of last season in pass protection, and has close to zero meaningful experience in that role at the pro level. In fact, many of his targets came with him spread out wide in empty back sets. He'll need to prove capable of handling both the mental and physical challenges of protection to sniff a role in New England.
In Cadet's favor are the fact that his 2014 season represents by far the most NFL production of any back vying for that pass catching role this year. His hands and route running are proven at the pro level, with his knack for making catches in traffic standing out on film. Like White, he shows solid vision and patience as a ball carrier, which he uses well to compensate for a lack of special burst. He also brings additional game day value as a return specialist. Cadet made the Saints roster as a 2012 undrafted rookie on the strength of his kick return skills and he's been a productive pro in that role, averaging 25.9 yards per return in his three year career.
It will be interesting to see what the Patriots have in store for Cadet. Their offense has typically been friendly to pass catching backs, and Cadet has already proven himself as a viable weapon in the passing game. Whether he can expand his game for a Pats team that demands versatility will ultimately determine how big of a role he can carve out for himself, as Belichick won't put him out there in critical situations if he can't be trusted in protection. However, if he proves to be at least adequate in protection, his dynamic receiving skills will make him a difficult cut come August.
Sleeper: Dion Lewis
The signing of Lewis to a futures contract didn't generate much offseason buzz, but the former Pitt star has intriguing physical talent. Lewis set college football on fire as a freshman, rushing for 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns, and received some buzz as a preseason Heisman candidate as a sophomore. His numbers dipped down to 1,061 yards (albeit with a healthy 4.8 ypc) and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore, but that wasn't enough to prevent him from entering the 2011 draft, where he was a fifth round pick of the Eagles.
Lewis flashed NFL talent as a rookie, turning his 23 carries into 102 yards (4.4 ypc) with a touchdown and 5 missed tackles to boot. However, that promising start proved to be for naught, as he was squeezed out of a meaningful role by Bryce Brown and special teams contributor Chris Polk in Philly the following season. That led to a trade to the Browns, where he appeared to be on his way to securing the number two job before a fractured fibula ended his 2013 season before it even started. Lewis failed to make the Browns roster last year, losing a close battle to undrafted rookie and eventual starter Isaiah Crowell, and didn't play a snap in 2014 despite a brief stint with the Colts.
That last paragraph will understandably fail to inspire confidence amongst Patriots fans, but Lewis has flashed NFL talent when he's had opportunities. Elusiveness has always been his biggest strength, and that has shown in his pro career. This has shown up in his consistently impressive missed tackle numbers, which included 7 missed tackles in only 17 touches during last year's preseason. Despite his 5'8", 193 pound frame, he's improved his pass protection, earning consistently solid marks in that department from PFF since his rookie year, and has always had reliable hands and natural pass catching ability.
Lewis appears to have made a positive impression early in his Patriots career, earning praise for his route running on several occasions from Tom Brady during minicamps. It's not the first time Lewis's natural talent has made him look good on a practice field, as Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner once said Lewis reminded him of Darren Sproles during the Browns 2013 training camp. The biggest key for Lewis will be staying healthy and bringing consistent execution to the field when live competition starts up. There's no doubting hehas the physical talent to be a productive NFL back. Still at just age 24, he's still young enough to turn a star-crossed career around, although he could be running out of NFL chances if this one fails.
As I noted before, these guys are the primary but not the only competition for the role of passing down back. Tyler Gaffney will get his own breakdown when I tackle the competition for bigger backs tomorrow, but the former Stanford star has flashed potential as a pass catcher in his own right. Having the versatility to provide depth on all three offensive downs could dramatically improve his chances of winning a roster spot. Likewise, Brandon Bolden has proven to be a capable option both as a ball carrier and third down back. This combines with his excellent special teams play to give him a strong case to make the roster, potentially eliminating a job for one of these candidates.
Furthermore, I wouldn't put it past the Patriots to make a move here if the in-house options get injured or fail to impress early on. Former Saint Pierre Thomas is a particularly intriguing veteran name available on the free agent market, as his versatile, well-rounded skill set would make him a good fit on paper for the Patriots scheme. Thomas is getting up there in years now but was still productive last year and probably has at least one more year of solid play left in him. Ahmad Bradshaw is another proven veteran out there, and while the former Colts and Giants back comes with serious injury concerns, he's also been very productive whenever he's been healthy in his pro career.
Predicting the outcome of this competition is probably a futile exercise, given how even these backs appear to be at the start of camp. Separation won't likely come until live game action gives them an opportunity to prove their worth, as there's only so much one can evaluate from a back without full speed play and live contact. However, not giving a prediction is no fun, so here goes nothing: Cadet's combination of return and receiving ability winds up being enough to win him a spot, leaving White to join Josh Boyce as former fourth round picks to get relegated to the practice squad after their first season in the pros.
Stay tuned tomorrow, as our Training Camp Battles series will stay within the running back position, this time examining the competition for another "big back" to complement and backup LeGarrette Blount.