On the radar: Patriots' running game

A player, coach or issue that should be on your radar as training camp approaches.

The New England Patriots’ backfield needs to be on the radar for numerous reasons.

The most important one is that not a single back on the roster has a contract past this season. Even though quarterback Tom Brady has worked successfully out of a spread formation, coach Bill Belichick knows the importance of the running game. When Brady blew out a knee in 2008, the Patriots gained an average of 142.4 rushing yards a game. That ground game made the job easier for Brady replacement Matt Cassel to get to the team to 11-5.

But the Patriots need to see in camp where the running game is to determine whether they want to use more two-tight end sets or just spread the field with wide receivers and use a one-back set. Complicating things is the uncertain status of wide receiver Wes Welker, who is coming off a serious knee injury. Brady could count on Welker taking some short receptions and using them like running plays if the backs were ineffective.

Kevin Faulk remains the team’s most reliable back even though he’s 34 years old. Laurence Maroney is under the most pressure even though he should be the main back on first and second downs. Maroney has never been able to rush for more than 835 yards in a season. He’s averaged 3.9 and 3.3 yards a carry in 2009 and 2008, respectively.

This is the final year of Maroney’s contract and if he doesn’t start to live up to his first-round selection –- the 21st player selected overall in 2006 -- the Patriots will be looking to draft a back in 2011.

Fred Taylor is also 34 years old, but he needs a solid camp to make the team. His job could be in jeopardy if 33-year-old Sammy Morris ends up ahead of him on the depth chart. Taylor can’t be expected to play special teams. If the former Jacksonville Jaguars star is the Patriots' third or fourth running option, he might not make the roster.