Was Shane Vereen's Performance Against the Jets a Sign of What's to Come?
You drafted Shane Vereen to do this.
With Stevan Ridley sidelined for the season, Vereen was the man last night for New England, totaling 114 yards and a pair of scores. After a short week of fantasy analysts trying to figure out who would be stealing Ridley's snaps, it was Vereen who stepped up in the Patriots' backfield.
Vereen owners needed this game. After being a fourth-round fantasy draft selection in most August drafts, Vereen entered his Week 7 game as the 27th-ranked full-point PPR running back. In six games, he had just two top-24 running back performances.
That all changed on Thursday night.
A Ridley-Less Patriot Backfield
The Patriots under Bill Belichick have been notorious for making their backfield a complete headache for fantasy football owners. The chart below shows just that, marking the percentage of snaps both Ridley and Vereen have seen per week through Week 7 (Ridley, obviously, through Week 6), as well as the number of running plays the Patriots ran.
(Snap data from FantasyData.com)
|Opponent||Vereen Snap %||Ridley Snap %||Patriot Runs|
The Pats have run the ball fewer than 20 times in three of their seven games this season. In those contests, Vereen has played at least 58% of the team snaps, while seeing over 70% in Week 1 and 80% last night.
When the Patriots have pounded the rock, Vereen's snaps decrease. In contests with 30 or more running plays, Vereen has yet to see over 40% of snaps, while Ridley, the primary runner, would see 55% or more.
Not surprisingly, this has been dictated by matchup and game script. The three contests where Vereen has seen a significant number of snaps were against Miami, Kansas City and New York. Entering Week 7, all three of those teams rank in the top half against the run, per our schedule-adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics.
In addition, the Patriots struggled against the Chiefs, and played in tight matchups versus the Dolphins and Jets. In their blowout victories versus Minnesota and Cincinnati, Vereen wasn't used much at all.
This shouldn't come as a shock, considering Vereen's skill doesn't come between the tackles - he's a pass-catching back that can do a lot of damage when Tom Brady has to drop back to pass. In tight games or when the Patriots are trailing, we should expect Vereen to see work.
That's what happened in last night's contest. Before we overreact to what we saw from Vereen, let's take a step back and recognize the matchup. The Jets have been one of the best teams in the NFL at stopping the run over the last year and a half, and it's no coincidence that New England ran their running backs just 15 times against them.
The team's pass-to-run ratio last night was 2.53. Entering the game against New York, New England ranked as the 10th run-heaviest team in the NFL. Their pass-to-run ratio against the Jets was higher than the pass-happiest team in the NFL, Oakland, whose ratio sits at 2.11 through six weeks.
Could this simply be due to Ridley's absence, as Belichick and company have zero trust in the running game? Maybe a bit. But Ridley hasn't been stellar in 2014, ranking 20th of the 36 running backs with 50-plus attempts in Rushing Net Expected Points.
Really, last night's offensive performance from New England matched directly with their opposing defense's strengths and weaknesses. The Jets have had struggles defending the pass this year while they've been generally tough against the run, and that's a key reason for New England's pass-heavy approach.
The fact is, Belichick has never used Shane Vereen as a workhorse runner. Vereen's played 33 games in the NFL, and the highest number of rushes he's seen in a single contest is 14. And when Ridley's been out - last year due to his fumbling issues - it wasn't Vereen who stole running back looks. It was a committee, mostly consisting of replacement-level players like LeGarrette Blount.
What Should Fantasy Owners Do?
It's important to note that Vereen has a lot of fantasy value when game script isn't favorable for New England. In tight games or contests where the team trails, I'd fully expect Vereen to have games like he did last night.
The problem is that it isn't easy to predict. New England's upcoming schedule shows potential Vereen-friendly games against Chicago, Denver, Detroit and perhaps San Diego, but the Pats could deploy a more run-heavy approach against Indianapolis and Green Bay.
This is precisely why it could be difficult to trust Vereen on a weekly basis in fantasy football. While I do think he'll naturally see an uptick in volume due to Ridley's injury, I think we should also recognize that New England has - and will - use plenty of backs in their running game to make up for Ridley's absence. After all, Vereen's never been a volume rusher between the tackles.
In PPR formats, it's fine to hold onto Vereen because of his ability in the passing game. But to think Week 7's contest against New York is a clear sign of what's to come would be foolish.