The Messy New England Patriots Running Back Situation

Is Stevan Ridley still the lead dog in the Patriots backfield?

After Shane Vereen sustained a wrist injury in the opening week, Stevan Ridley was supposed to be locked in to a huge workload in a great offense with great blocking. Pure fantasy gold, right? Wrong. After three games, owners who drafted Ridley feel like hitting themselves over the head with an Ace of Spades bottle harder than that stripper hit Jacoby Jones.

The Patriots' Week 3 box score raised the blood pressure of Ridley owners worldwide. Brandon Bolden came on to lead the Patriots backfield in total yards. LeGarrette Blount - who wasn’t even good enough to average three carries per game last season - had the same amount of attempts as Ridley (14). Blount also out-gained Ridley on those carries, 65-36. So not only is Ridley losing touches, he’s seemingly being outplayed as well.

Before we jump to conclusions though, let’s take a look at the Patriots backfield usage and efficiency last season and this season.

New England's Backfield Usage

Patriots RBs in 2012GSnaps/G% of RB SnapsRush/GRush NEP/RushRec/GRec NEP/Tar
Stevan Ridley1635.045%
Danny Woodhead1528.334%
Shane Vereen1114.713%
Brandon Bolden812.38%

In 2012, Ridley needed only 45 percent of the Patriots’ total running back snaps to rank as a top-10 fantasy back. So far in 2013 though, Ridley is getting only 33 percent of the snaps. Ridley did get benched for more than half of Week 1, when the Patriots ended up running an eye-popping 95 plays. So lets throw out week 1 and take a look:

Patriots RBs, Week 2-3 of 2013GSnaps/G% of RB SnapsRush/GRush NEP/RushRec/GRec NEP/Tar
Stevan Ridley232.045%13.5-
LeGarrette Blount219.027%9.0-0.250.0-0.48
Brandon Bolden126.011%3.00.695.00.29
Leon Washington114.06%1.0-0.710.0-0.79

As you can see, since Vereen has been out, Ridley has gotten …*drumroll *…45 percent of the snaps, exactly what he was used to last year.

The 217 plays the Patriots have run so far is a decent enough sample size to determine his usage, and unless he runs into more fumbling issues, it looks like his usage won’t change from last season.

36 rushes, however, is too small of a sample size to determine that Ridley has all of a sudden become a less effective rusher than he was last season. Ridley has faced two excellent run defenses (Jets & Bucs) in the two full games he's played. And he was gashing the Bills for 5.1 yards per carry before a fumble landed him on the bench in Week 1.

Ridley vs. Blount, Ridley vs. Touchdowns

Thanks to a larger sample size, the net expected points (NEP) per rush metrics - which show how many real points a runner adds to his team's expected total with each rush - do confirm Ridley has been a much more effective runner than Blount throughout their careers. Ridley has finished with a positive NEP/rush in both of his first two seasons, while Blount has finished with a negative NEP/rush every year of his three-year career.

The main reason Ridley finished as a top-10 back last season was his 12 touchdowns. Touchdowns are difficult to predict, but there’s no reason to believe he can’t rebound in that department. After all, Ridley was held without a touchdown in seven games last season, but scored 12 in the other nine.

The Patriots have scored zero rushing touchdowns so far this season after scoring 25 last season and 18 the year before. Ridley's zero touchdowns just screams "regression to the mean".

What To Expect From Ridley This Season

We currently have Ridley projected as a flex play through the end of the season after his slow start, but I believe he still has the upside to be a high-end RB2. If you drafted him, remember that this is what you signed up for when you chose a touchdown-dependent Patriot running back that doesn’t catch many passes.

A good fantasy owner will use the numbers as a basis to make sound decisions, but a great fantasy owner also needs to go beyond the numbers sometimes and think critically outside the box. Especially when dealing with the Patriots, it helps to try understand Bill Belichick's mindset. The Patriots have been ravaged by injuries at the skill positions. Vereen played 57 snaps in Week 1 and sustained an injury that will cost him half of the season. Last year, Rob Gronkowski got hurt on an extra point in a blowout win. The last thing the Patriots want is to lose their top running back, Ridley, so it only makes sense that Belechick isn't running him into the ground this early in the season.

Ridley probably won't ever be a 25-plus carry back in this offense, but he's still the lead dog in a pretty potent attack.

What About LeGarrette Blount?

Blount tied Ridley with 14 carries last game, but I wouldn’t bet on anywhere near an even split going forward. Blount got eight of those 14 carries - including 6 in a row - on the Patriots last drive (not counting three kneel-downs). The Patriots were up 23-3 at the time. It was essentially garbage time.

An important thing to keep in mind is Blount was facing the team that traded him. Up 20, its very possible that Belichick let Blount take a few extra hacks at his old team. Remember, Blount only got 11 carries in the first two weeks combined.

There is no need to pick up Blount unless he starts consistently getting 10-plus carries and some goal line work against teams other than the Bucs.

How About Brandon Bolden?

Although Blount got more touches in Week 3, Bolden is the guy more worthy of an add. The Patriots are in need of a passing-down back in Vereen’s absence. Bolden filled that role well in Week 3, amassing 49 yards on five catches.

His 51 rushing yards are of less consequence. He only ran the ball on three of his 26 snaps, and a 46-yard run inflated his total.

Leon Washington had a thigh injury in Week 3 too, which is the reason Bolden stepped into a prominent role. However, Washington is past his prime and may not regain his role. Danny Woodhead showed that being the passing down back in the Patriots offense can be valuable, so Bolden is worth a speculative add to see if he takes on that role full-time.