The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player for the 2012 NFL season on each NFL team. For the New England Patriots, that player is running back Stevan Ridley.
Not since Corey Dillon was in his prime, 2004, have the Patriots had an explosive lead back. In 2004, Dillon rushed for 1635 yards and 12 touchdowns on 345 carries. However, after that they had a washed up Dillon, who rushed for just 1545 yards over the next 2 seasons on 408 carries. He did have 25 touchdowns over those two seasons, but mostly just because he was around the goal line so much.
After that, 2006 1st round pick Laurence Maroney ranged from everything from serviceable to god awful in 2 seasons as a starter, 2007 and 2009. Maroney was out of the league after 5 seasons, 4 in New England, and one in Denver, where he averaged 2.1 yards per carry. He rushed for just 2504 yards and 21 touchdowns on 618 carries in his career and was oft injured. He missed most of the 2008 season, forcing a 31 year old Sammy Morris to carry the load, as he rushed for 727 yards and 7 touchdowns on 156 carries.
In 2010 and 2011, BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the lead back. He was the perfect running back for the Patriots because he never fumbled and could run through holes. With how good the passing game and offensive line are, all the Patriots needed him to do was not fumble (0 fumbles in 557 career carries) and run through holes opened up by the offensive line against spread out fronts who are fearing the pass. However, he was not explosive at all and didn’t do anything after contact. In his career, including playoffs, BJGE had 1305 yards after contact on 557 carries, just 2.3 yards per carry after contact.
It’s not entirely coincidental that the last time the Patriots won the Super Bowl was 2004, the last time they had an explosive lead back. Enter Stevan Ridley, a 2011 3rd round pick. Ridley averaged 5.1 yards per carry including playoffs last season, with 3.1 yards after contact, rushing for 462 yards on 91 carries total. He was good enough in limited action for the Patriots to let BJGE go and make him the lead back and he’s been impressing in Training Camp.
He doesn’t pass catch well, as he had just 17 catches in his collegiate career and 5 last year. For this reason, he won’t see a lot of obvious passing downs as Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead will handle those duties. He did fumble last season, something BJGE has never done, fumbling twice and losing one, but he only fumbled 3 times in college so he’s pretty sure handed when it comes to protecting the football.
If he can avoid fumbles this season, he should be able to get the majority of BJGE’s vacated workload (410 carries over the last 2 seasons). The Patriots’ passing game and offensive line are both good enough to make any back look serviceable. If Ridley lives up to his potential, imagine how good he can be in the Patriots’ offense.
By the way, if you’re interested in doing a fantasy football league with me, here’s the link (no draft date set yet, currently standard, with the option to become PPR with group vote). http://msn.foxsports.com/fantasy/football/commissioner/Registration/Private.aspx?league=55086&password=FanSpot2