While most rumors around the New England Patriots in the first four full days of the NFL free agency season have focused on the team’s defensive needs — namely, how will Coach and General Manager Bill Belichick compensate for the loss of All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis — the Patriots have another need, after running back Shane Vereen departed to the New York Giants as a free agent.
In the Tom Brady/Belichick era, starting in 2001, the New England running game has never been the highlight of the team’s offensive scheme, with most game plans centering around Brady and his receiving corps.
But Vereen, New England’s 2011 second-round draft pick, was not only a solid if not spectacular runner — averaging 4.2 yards per carry in his four-year career — he was also an important part of that Brady pass-catching crew.
In the 2014 season, Vereen was one of only five NFL backs with at least 50 carries and 50 catches — and his 11 catches in the Patriots Super Bowl victory were a record for a running back.
So how do the Patriots replace Vereen? For weeks, rumors have focused on veteran Reggie Bush, who played the past two seasons with the Detriot Lions. And in fact, the 30-year-old out of USC who was the second overall pick in the 2006 draft, visited New England on Friday — after the team that drafted him and with whom Bush had been expected to return, the New Orleans Saints, signed running back C.J. Spiller, ruling Bush out.
And then Bush agreed to a deal with the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday.
That likely leaves the Patriots looking to the draft to replace Vereen, and if they do they may look to University of Miami running back Duke Johnson. Due to his lack of size, the five-foot, nine-inch, 206-pound Johnson — who turns 22 on September 23 — could go as low as the fourth round, NFL draft experts say, but could also be picked in Rounds 2 or 3. In other words, if the Patriots want him, Belichick will likely be able to grab Johnson.
What the Miami back lacks in size and raw power, he makes up for in explosiveness and an uncanny ability to execute cutbacks to find holes in the line that most running backs miss, as can be seen in this play.
Which way will the Patriots go to fill their backfield hole? Or will new rumors crop up in the next few days, involving another name who could fill out the New England depth chart in 2015.
[Image: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images]