Why Stevan Ridley's Time as the Featured Back in New England Could Be Over
If Bill Belichick were an Internet-savvy kid rather than a grumpy old coach with more Lombardi Trophies than he knows what to do with, he might include a "You had one job!" meme in Stevan Ridley's weekly review when the team assesses their film every week.
That's because the coach understands the value of holding onto the football, and emphasizes that point when he frequently benches his running back for failing to do so. Ridley's fumbles are a well-documented risk, and that has led to speculation that Ridley might not even make the Patriots roster.
You Had One Job!
Last season, Stevan Ridley finished 13th out of 25 backs with 150-250 carries in our Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, and had the worst Reception NEP of that group. The receptions aren't a real issue, as the Patriots have Shane Vereen around to handle that aspect of the running back duties.
But his rushing performance was mediocre when compared to his peers, and even more concerning when compared to his teammates. Here's how his career statistics stack up against Brandon Bolden's numbers.
|Player||Rushes||NEP||NEP/Rush||Success Rate||Receptions||REC NEP|
Sample size is an obvious issue here, as Bolden hasn't carried quite the same load since entering the NFL as Ridley has. But apart from overall volume, the two backs are staggeringly similar. Ridley's career includes more ups and downs, as a strong 2012 was balanced out by a weak 2013, but the net results give us two backs with similar profiles.
Ridley does have an advantage over his teammate, and that's in the area of ball security. In their careers, Ridley has a rushing attempt to fumble ratio three times better than that of Bolden, meaning that if Ridley is cut for fumbling alone, it doesn't paint an optimistic picture for the future of Bolden, either.
In truth, Ridley's fumble rate isn't even that extreme when compared to averages over the past two decades. Since 1990, among backs with between 500 and 1,000 carries, Ridley's fumble rate is within three "attempts per fumble" of the average player. There have been players who have been worse at holding onto the ball in recent NFL history, and Ridley's fumble issues are by no means historic.
The White Knight
So Ridley's fumbling alone doesn't seem to be worthy of a release, since he's a safer ball carrier than Bolden. Both players are in the last years of their rookie contracts, and have similarly small salaries, so there's no huge advantage gained by releasing either one.
But they could find themselves relegated to the bench this season in favor of a very similar athlete with a history of holding onto the ball.
Rookie James White fumbled twice in his college career, per Field Yates - a career that saw the Wisconsin back touch the ball 754 times. That's a touch-to-fumble rate approximately six times better than Ridley, and over 10 times better than Bolden.
And as for the similarity, let's take a look at how the three players compare based on NFL Combine measurables.
|Player||Height||Weight||40 Yd. Dash||3-Cone||20 Yd. Shuttle||Speed Score|
Speed score accounts for a player's weight and speed, which equalizes the backs despite White's smaller size but quicker 40 time. The shuttle times are similar, and the three-cone times favor Ridley, but Bolden and White are very close.
These are the sorts of measurables that go into our READ metric, which compares rookies with past first-year players based on the offensive situation to which they're drafted. And according to that metric, the strongest comparables for James White are all first-year success stories such as Alfred Morris, Domanick Davis, Matt Forte, Ronnie Brown and Knowshon Moreno.
To add insult to injury for Ridley, he's also listed as a strong comparable to White, who holds onto the ball with more confidence and security than his new teammate.
Who Gets the Job?
NFL fans, and especially fantasy football players, hate the phrase "running back-by-committee," but in New England, it's almost a certainty this season. Shane Vereen remains the best option as a receiving back, and could have the only clearly defined role in the backfield.
But the former Cal tailback has never carried the ball more than 62 times in an NFL season, and that's not a number he's likely to eclipse by an incredibly large margin in 2014.
So who carries the rest of the load?
Based on what we've learned in the data above, the demise of Stevan Ridley might be slightly exaggerated, but it's certainly founded in reality. The back isn't a special athlete when compared to his peers, nor does he have a strong history of efficiency and production in the league. But with a cheap contract and a not-as-bad-as-you-think fumble rate, he's likely to stick around for at least one more year.
The same can't be said for Bolden, who, despite being a bit better from an efficiency standpoint, is a much more frequent fumbler than Ridley, and provides no other traits to set him apart from any other replacement-level back.
But it's White who offers the most upside, as he's on par athletically with the other Patriots runners but possesses a superior track record of ball security. Should his peers stumble (or fumble) and give him a shot at carries with the offense this season, he may never give his coaches a reason to put him back on the bench.