Predictions: Forecasting the running game

Today we begin our weeklong Patriots prediction series, in which we ask our experts to forecast individual performances for offensive skill players and overall team defensive statistics. Today’s focus is the running game.

Based on numbers from previous seasons, we’re giving Patriots running backs 440 carries for 1,800 yards and 18 touchdowns. How will those stats be distributed among individual ball carriers?

• Mike Reiss’ breakdown: Indications are that Shane Vereen might be sidelined with an injury to start the season (he hobbled off in the first quarter of the preseason game against Tampa Bay), so he might have some catching up to do in terms of production. Stevan Ridley is now positioned as the lead back, with Danny Woodhead the change-of-pace option and Brandon Bolden a third option who should be on the 46-man game-day roster because of his presence on special teams.

In terms of touchdowns, Ridley looks like the top option inside the red zone as he’s 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, making him a bigger back whose power figures to be tapped in close. The Patriots generally favor a committee-style approach and last season the playing time was split almost evenly among top backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis (34 percent) and Woodhead (33 percent). These numbers were based on a similar split, with Ridley filling in for Green-Ellis.

• Mike Rodak’s breakdown: The expectation is that Ridley will take over Green-Ellis' role as the Patriots' lead back. At a 4.0 yard average for this projection, Ridley would be an improvement over Green-Ellis' 3.7 yard average last season. Green-Ellis rushed for 11 touchdowns in 2011, while this projection has Ridley punching it in 13 times. He is the Patriots' leading red-zone threat on the ground.

Last season, Vereen didn't emerge like some believed he would, while veteran Kevin Faulk played only a minor role. This projection has a more even distribution of carries behind Ridley, including 112 carries for Vereen and 42 for undrafted rookie Bolden, who could earn a spot on the 46-man game-day roster for his special teams contributions.

Meanwhile, Woodhead remains productive as a middle-of-the-field, third-down back who will offer a higher yards-per-carry average but won't score many touchdowns.

• Field Yates’ breakdown: Ridley steps into a workhorse role after separating himself from the running back competition this preseason, both as a between the tackles and perimeter runner. Expect him to receive the bulk of the workload near the goal line as well, similar to how Green-Ellis was used during his time in New England. The Patriots will maintain a running back by committee approach to an extent, however, with Woodhead receiving extensive playing time in the team's up-tempo attack.

Vereen's late surge in camp has him on pace to make more of an impact than a season ago, but a recent injury could prevent him from stepping onto the field in the early part of the season. Ultimately, he provides good ability to spell Ridley and serve as a potential home run-hitting threat.

Bolden, meanwhile, files in as a good security blanket in the event that an injury keeps any of the top trio out for a prolonged period of time, and he also plays a pivotal role as a core special teams player.

• Your turn: How would you distribute the Patriots' carries (440), yards (1,800) and touchdowns (18)? Share your predictions in the comments section. At the end of the season, we’ll recognize the reader who was closest to the actual numbers.