Can Travaris Cadet Emerge As the Pass-Catching Back in New England?

Shane Vereen hauled in 99 receptions over the last two seasons in New England. Is his replacement already on the Patriots' roster?

Thanks to Deflategate, the majority of discussion surrounding the New England Patriots this offseason has ignored actual on-field developments that will affect the team in 2015.

I’m certainly not here to comment on Tom Brady, air pressure, or anything of the sort. But what we can discuss here are the ramifications of the departure of Shane Vereen, and how the passing-down back role will be distributed among the remaining running backs.

LeGarrette Blount is slated as the early-down back and goal-line hammer, both roles certainly suiting the 245-pound back just fine. After returning to New England in Week 11 last season, Blount ended up with 281 yards and 3 touchdowns in the final five regular season games and was a key piece to the Patriots’ eventual Super Bowl title.

Assuming all three make the final roster, Jonas Gray, Brandon Bolden, and Tyler Gaffney could also spell Blount in certain early-down situations, but none are true pass-catching specialists.

This opens the door for Travaris Cadet and James White to compete for the pass-catching role that was once occupied by Vereen. Cadet appears to be the favorite to fill the role, but it’s not a forgone conclusion at this point.

Let’s examine what these third-down back candidates bring to the table, and which one is the better fit to slide into Vereen’s vacant role.

The Possible Replacements

Below, I’ve listed the Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) results from the 2014 season for Vereen, Cadet (New Orleans) and White. NEP is our signature metric that measures a player's on-field by showing how many real-life points he added or subtracted from his team's total based on his contributions. What we find is not far from what we would expect.

PlayerReceptionsReception NEPReception NEP/TargetCatch Rate
Shane Vereen5332.690.4267.95%
Travaris Cadet3814.910.2974.51%
James White50.370.07100.00%

The first and most obvious thing to point out is the disparity in usage between White and the other two. As a rookie last season, White saw extremely limited playing time in what was a very crowded Patriots’ backfield. So while his metrics are still helpful, without a larger sample size to pull from, prorating his performance can be tricky.

That being said, among 32 running backs who secured between 5 and 10 targets last season, White finished 27th in Reception NEP, and 25th in Reception NEP per target. The small sample size should soften some criticism of those poor results, but relative to his opportunity, White didn’t do much according to our metrics.

On the other hand, both Vereen and Cadet found themselves in the top 50% in terms of Reception NEP per target among the 30 running backs who saw between 40 and 90 targets last season. Vereen was 7th, and Cadet was 15th.

It’s obvious that neither Cadet nor White was as efficient a pass-catcher as Vereen was. But between the two, Cadet has the edge in efficiency, as well as a substantial edge in experience.

It Takes More Than Just Pass Catching Ability

Being a third-down specialist running back requires receiving acumen by nature, but an equally (if not more) important factor is pass-blocking ability. And on a team with a soon-to-be-38-year-old quarterback who was never fleet of foot, keeping him upright becomes even more crucial.

Looking at Pro Football Focus’s grading system from 2014, a few interesting items appear. Although Cadet was on the field for 182 passing plays, he was asked to block just 7 times, giving up 2 hurries on those opportunities. He ranked 156th in Pass Blocking Efficiency among 164 charted running backs.

White saw 19 passing-play snaps last season, and was asked to block 2 times and did not give up a pressure on those snaps.

Again, this is where small sample size becomes important. It’s unfair to assume a 100% efficiency rating if White were to see a substantial increase in pass blocking reps, but Cadet’s poor pass blocking grades are what we should take away from this exercise.

Experience, Or The Unknown Upside?

It’s impossible to know what any NFL coaching staff plans to do regarding positional competition, especially a staff headed by Bill Belichick. But coaches tend to lean towards experienced players over unknown upside when it’s a close call.

Chances are, Cadet will get first crack at the third-down, passing situation duties because of his prior game experience -- 41 career games compared to White’s 3.

And chances are Cadet will be an above-average performer in the receiving game, as he has shown the ability to do during his time in New Orleans. But if the Patriots ask him to pass protect, and improvements aren’t made in that area by Cadet, that’s when things could get murky.

According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Cadet is currently coming off the board as the RB59 at pick 13.08 in 12-team, PPR drafts, at which point he becomes a viable target once you enter the later rounds of your upcoming re-drafts.

And while the annual revolving door known as the Patriots’ backfield is always just a spin away, Cadet should be given the opportunity to produce in a focused role on an offense that should continue to thrive in 2015.