Saints-like approach for Pats at RB?

The Patriots’ reported signing of running back Joseph Addai leaves a team that has recently been reliant on the passing game with a crowded backfield.

Addai joins a pair of second-year players, Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, who are both expected to see increased roles in 2012, and scatback Danny Woodhead, who has been an effective player when the Patriots have chosen to go with an up-tempo, no-huddle offensive approach.

And while Addai offers a unique package of his own – he’s regarded as a strong pass catcher and blocker, and he’s rushed for more than 4,500 yards in his career – a numbers crunch in the backfield has many wondering what his role will be in New England (assuming the team elects to keep four running backs).

Without ever having seen him with a Patriots helmet on, it’s tough to accurately project how Addai will fit into the backfield mix, as well as how the team plans to use its stable of runners.

We do, however, have an interesting frame of reference for this “dilemma,” as it was just last season that New Orleans – another team which operates under the pass-first philosophy – successfully carried four running backs on the active roster, and managed to create roles for each.

The Saints drafted Alabama running back Mark Ingram in the first round of the 2011 draft (with a pick acquired from the Patriots, as it turns out), and also signed the shifty Darren Sproles from the Chargers via free agency. Those two teamed up with Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory to form a four-headed rushing attack that successfully complemented the Saints' passing game.

How New Orleans managed to work the rotation in 2011 could resemble what New England would consider in 2012.

Truthfully, New Orleans didn’t actually rely on a four-man rotation on game days so much as it did a trio of runners with an inactive reserve. Although each player totaled at least 79 carries in 2011, not once did all four record a carry in the same game.

On most Sundays, that possibility was eliminated by one of the four being deactivated due to an injury (as both Ivory and Ingram missed extended time with respective ailments). In other instances, the Saints sat a healthy runner to create room for a player at another position on the game-day roster (Ivory was typically the healthy scratch), as special teams was likely a strong consideration.

Running backs absorb a lot of hits, meaning there is added exposure to injury, and the Saints showed in 2011 that keeping four on the roster can be an effective approach.

As training camp opens up in late July, we’ll likely start to gather a stronger sense of the Patriots' plans for each of their running backs, and what roles they could assume under new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. That, along with the wide receiver group, will be amongst the most interesting positional storylines to follow leading into 2012.