It's unusual for a team to finish third in the NFL in total rushing yards and second in rushing touchdowns in one season but not have a single running back worthy of being selected in the first 50 picks of the following season's fantasy draft. That is, however, exactly what is happening to the New England Patriots. The cause of that disconnect between overall team performance and individual fantasy value is no doubt because of the method in which the Patriots have utilized their running backs over the past couple of years.
However, assuming that such a deep rotation will be continued into the future means that owners aren't looking at the total picture in Foxboro. People forget that the Patriots won their Super Bowls using a feature back in two of those three seasons. Even after those Super Bowl seasons, the plan for the Patriots was to install Laurence Maroney as a feature back who would carry the ball 225-plus times. Of course, the best laid plans in football are subject to change because of injuries, and injuries did impact both the availability and production of Maroney during his time in New England.
In fact, the list of Patriots running backs that missed time over the past couple of years is rather substantial: Maroney, Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk. Essentially, those are the four names that were all listed ahead of BenJarvus Green-Ellis on last season's depth chart, which makes you wonder just how fantasy-dominant any back would be if he was given the chance to be a feature back in the Patriots' offense.
With that in mind, here is a quick scouting report on those players on the Patriots roster who, with the right breaks, could find themselves providing huge returns for their fantasy owners:
BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Average Draft Position: 53.4, 23rd among RBs): Although Green-Ellis was the best running back for the Patriots last year, those drafting him and expecting similar numbers are setting themselves up for disappointment. Last year's production likely is the high-water mark on this north-south runner's career. Since he doesn't have the desired burst to take advantage of smaller holes, Green-Ellis' fantasy value will be extremely reliant on him crossing the goal line. Expecting another season of double-digit scores isn't realistic, and you can do much better in the early sixth round than a player who could easily finish with 750 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
Danny Woodhead (136.2, 49): Woodhead was brought into New England to fill the third-down void that was left when Kevin Faulk injured his knee early last season. In his first year in Foxboro, Woodhead excelled in his role by compiling 926 total yards and adding six scores. Those fantasy contestants who are intellectually honest will realize that Woodhead's production trailed Green-Ellis' by just 167 yards. Factor in that Woodhead missed the first two games of the season and you'll find that in terms of yards per game, the difference between Woodhead and Green-Ellis was a mere two yards. With that being established, it's clear that the real difference between the two was Green-Ellis' goal-line proficiency. If you don't project the Law Firm crossing the plane of the end zone significantly more often than Woodhead this season, Woodhead becomes a very solid value for a 14th-round selection.
Stevan Ridley (Undrafted, 63): At 6-foot and 220 pounds, with a 4.66-second 40-yard dash, it's clear that Ridley isn't a home-run threat. In fact, during his collegiate career, Ridley produced only one offensive play that went for more than 30 yards. If it were not for his preseason three-touchdown performance, Ridley probably would be going somewhere near the 90th running back selected. Expect Ridley to be a short-yardage back, as he is very difficult to tackle.
Shane Vereen (Undrafted, 64): Vereen missed the preseason opener due to a hamstring injury and his fantasy value was definitely impacted by Ridley's performance in that game. Do not relate the two. Although it is plausible to forecast Ridley as a short-yardage back, Vereen has the skill set to be the best all-around feature the back the Patriots have had since Corey Dillon. At 5-foot-10, 205 pounds and a 4.5-second 40 time, Vereen seems to be just short of the desired measurables of a NFL feature back, but if any NFL team overlooks metrics for performance, it's the Patriots, so look for Vereen to a get a real shot at becoming the man in New England. Of all the Patriots backs, Vereen is the one you should make sure you draft, as he'll cost you nothing more than a late-round pick in most drafts but has the upside of a solid second running back. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Vereen as the every-down back at some point this season, as the Patriots will likely want to see what Vereen is capable of since management will want to evaluate their options before sitting down with Green-Ellis to discuss a contract extension; his contract is up as of the end of the 2011 season.
Sammy Morris (Undrafted, 124): The drafting of Ridley and Vereen secures Morris as a fullback-only option. Look for him in short-yardage situations.
Kevin Faulk (Undrafted, 131): Look for the Patriots to keep Faulk as an insurance policy, and the only way Faulk finds his way onto the field this season is if Woodhead is injured. Faulk is a candidate to start the regular season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, which means the Patriots basically have up to 12 weeks to see if they need to cash in on that insurance policy or release the veteran.
Ken Daube is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. His ESPN.com fan profile is available here.