Tonight, in my quest to respond to my own running back article I wrote in August that was wrong as I stated that you can’t waste first round picks on running backs, I began doing an interesting analysis of the Patriots roster over the last decade. What makes them so great, and the other lasting, great franchises is that they don’t reload when they need to replace someone; they have a similar kind of player waiting in the wings to replace a player whose contract or career will be ending soon.
Their slot receiver position has been handed down from Troy Brown to Deion Branch to Wes Welker to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola.
When Randy Moss left in 2010, they used a temporary fix of Deion Branch, Brandon Tate, and two young tight ends named Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski until they could sign Chad Johnson for 2011. When Johnson didn’t work out that year, they just fed the ball to Wes Welker who had 122 catches (2nd most ever at the time) and Hernandez and Gronk combined for 2237 yards. In those two years, they went 27-5 without a real prototypical #1 receiver.
After that, they brought in Brandon Lloyd who had 911 yards in 2012. In 2013, they used a combination of Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, while they combined for 985 yards, they didn’t wow enough to stop the Patriots from getting an insurance policy with Brandon Lafell at a relatively cheap three-year, $9 million deal for a player who has blossomed this year when given his first real opportunity with 119 targets compared to 85 last year. They’re glad they did as Dobson is on the IR and Thompkins is in Oakland now.
The pass catching running back spot has gone from Kevin Faulk for about a decade to Danny Woodhead to Shane Vereen. They might resign Vereen because he doesn’t have a lot of tread on his tires, similar to when they resigned Kevin Faulk back in the early-2000s and that wouldn’t be a bad investment.
Something interesting that I noticed when studying this position is the exact science that they have the position down to, so much so that the players that have occupied it from 2000 to 2014 have almost identical stats:
From 2000-2009. Kevin Faulk averaged 48.2 yards per game for the Patriots.
From 2010-2012, Danny Woodhead averaged 47.3 per game.
From 2012-2014 Shane Vereen has averaged 50.6 per game.
*(I find these stats really remarkable, the Patriots are such a pleasure to study.)
Similarly, the first running back spot has gone from Antowain Smith to Corey Dillon to Laurence Maroney to BenJarvus Green-Ellis to a Stevan Ridley/LeGarrette Blount combination. I’m sure the Patriots drafted James White this year because Ridley’s contract ends this offseason and the Patriots don’t spend their money on running backs going into their second contract because that’s a typically risky investment. They might resign Ridley if there’s no market for him because of his injury and he ends up being low-cost. If he had a good year and they lost him in free agency though, they were already prepared by having White with a year in their system. They also picked up Jonas Gray as a cheap insurance plan with upside, who actually led the team in rushing this season.
So what is the Patriots Way? Reload before you have to. Don’t just reload with one guy either, reload with multiple players who can fill multiple roles. Deion Branch was a great slot receiver, but he was always able to play multiple positions. They brought in Amendola when Welker left to ensure someone would be there because they didn’t know what they had with Edelman, just like what they did with Lafell this year.
This is possible because the Patriots have an established system, they go out and get players who fill their roles, they draft well, they find undrafted gems, they find players in other team’s garbage that fill roles for them and above all else, the Patriots know exactly who they are. They are fantastic at filling their needs and finding value where others don’t.
I might be from New York and have reveled in the Giants Super Bowls over the Patriots, ESPECIALLY when I was a Senior at Rhode Island, but I sure do respect the hell out of this organization.