Forget Danny Amendola. The one guy who should feel the most pressure when it comes to replicating a departed player’s role in the Patriots offense is running back Shane Vereen.
While Amendola is charged with replacing Welker’s output, it’ll be a group of pass catchers who line up in the slot this year, including tight end Aaron Hernandez, who has spent lots of time there the last three seasons. As of right now, Vereen is a solo act, and as a result, he’s the one charged with keeping the single most unheralded spot among the New England skill position players productive: third-down back.
For the last decade-plus, the role of third-down back has been important to the success of Bill Belichick's offensive game plan. Manned by Kevin Faulk from roughly 2003 until his retirement last year, the job was assumed on a full-time basis last season by Danny Woodhead. Neither Faulk or Woodhead was all that excited about drawing attention to themselves -- instead, they were more about the work. As a result, they became absolutely key to the success of the Patriots’ offense for their skill set in three areas: blitz pickup, dependability in the passing game and overall durability.
Blitz pickup: Faulk was one of the best in the league in that capacity, throwing himself between quarterback Tom Brady and an onrushing blitzer on several occasions. (There’s a conspiracy theory out there that if Faulk had played in the 2008 opener -- he was suspended for the game -- he would have never allowed Bernard Pollard to get to Brady.) With his undersized frame, he was able to jack up plenty of linebackers and safeties in his day by keeping his pad level low and using that leverage to his advantage. While Woodhead wasn’t the elite blocker that Faulk turned out to be, he was still better than most.
Dependability in the passing game: They were both as reliable as anyone else in the New England passing game, particularly when it came to their target rates. Woodhead’s target rate -- defined as the percentage of catches he made against the total number of times he was targeted by Brady -- was astounding. In his three seasons with the Patriots, Woodhead caught 92 passes for New England on 130 targets, a 71 percent rate. This past season, he had 40 catches on 55 targets for a 73 percent rate, the best for any New England pass catcher who was targeted at least 10 times. (In addition, he became the first running back since Faulk to finish a season with at least 40 catches and 40 carries. And he was the second-leading rusher on the team, finishing with 301 yards on 76 carries, good for a 4.0 yards per carry average.)
As for Faulk, it’s impossible to go back and chart his target rate for his entire career in New England -- targets were compiled starting in 2006 -- but for the final six years of his career, he was more reliable than anyone else in the Patriots’ passing game. From 2006 through 2011, per ESPN Stats & Info, Faulk caught 198 passes on 265 targets, a rate of 75 percent. Three out of every four times a Patriots quarterback threw the ball in his direction, he caught it. The only other New England pass catcher who comes close to Faulk over that same extended stretch is Wes Welker, who finished at 73 percent from 2007 through 2012. (Those numbers are a bit skewed because Welker had more opportunities -- 925 targets in six seasons -- but the rate is still impressive nonetheless.)
Durability: The role of a third-down back is spotty at best -- you’re not an every-down guy, but you have to be ready and produce when your number is called. Both were exemplary in this regard: Woodhead played in 45 of a possible 47 regular-season games in three seasons, while Faulk missed 19 regular-season games from 2000 to 2009, a 10-year stretch that saw him evolve into one of the best changeup backs in the game.
Now, with Faulk set to start his coaching career at a Louisiana high school and Woodhead a member of the Chargers, the job falls to Vereen, a product of Cal who is entering his third year in the NFL. The 5-foot-9, 205-pound Vereen certainly has the body type to match both Faulk (5-foot-8, 202 pounds) and Woodhead (5-foot-8, 200 pounds).
What he doesn’t have is the resume. Vereen had 217 snaps last season, and was used sparingly as something of a backup to Woodhead. In 13 regular-season games, he had 62 rushes for 251 yards and three touchdowns, and eight catches for 149 yards and one touchdown. Not terrific numbers, but certainly something to build on for 2013, particularly when -- at least at this point -- Vereen is the only serious candidate on the roster for the role.
Vereen’s next-door-neighbor -- and teammate -- believes he’s up for the challenge.
“I don’t think Shane’s any dummy, man,” said running back Stevan Ridley, who was also drafted in 2011 by New England and has settled nicely into the role of feature back with the Patriots. “He realizes that we lost an awesome player in Danny Woodhead last year, and somebody who really showed us the way to do things on both sides of the ball. In every emphasis of the game of football, Danny was on top of it.
“For Shane to see a guy leave and his role to open up even more, I think he’s going to jump on the moment and capture the moment. You look at him last year, what he did toward the end, he was blooming late and Shane’s a hell of a player. I think he’s going to be ready to go, and I’m excited about it.”
There are two statistical anomalies that stand out about Vereen’s 2012 season. One, his work against the Texans: In the two games against Houston -- one regular-season matchup and one postseason matchup -- Vereen played some of the finest football of his relatively short career. In the December meeting, he had eight carries for 40 yards, and in the playoffs, he had seven carries for 41 yards and one touchdown, and caught five passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns. These two games represent the majority of his statistical output in his two seasons in the NFL.
In the case of both games, it will be interesting to see how much of that was the Patriots coaching staff taking advantage of a mismatch and how much it was Vereen rising to the occasion. New England clearly saw something in Vereen that led it to believe he’d be a handful for the Texans: He played 33 percent of the offensive snaps in the December game, and 57 percent of the snaps in the postseason. At the time, both represented career highs. Maybe it was because of personnel. (Rob Gronkowski didn’t play in the first game and was only involved in seven snaps before injuring himself in the divisional playoff game. In addition, Woodhead only played one snap before he left because of injury against Houston in January.) Maybe it was because of mismatches. Maybe it was a random move. Regardless, the Patriots will be looking for more of that from him in 2013.
And two, we know for sure that Vereen, like Woodhead and Faulk, is comfortable as a receiver. He caught 74 passes in three seasons at Cal, and in two years, has shown himself to be comfortable working in the passing game. One area where he could certainly seize an opportunity is creating yards after the catch. The Patriots suffered a major loss in potential YAC when Wes Welker signed with the Broncos, but in an extremely limited capacity last year, Vereen showed a real flair for picking up YAC. In fact, of any pass catcher who had at least 100 yards receiving on the New England roster last season, he had the highest percentage of total YAC -- he ended the season with 149 receiving yards, and an impressive 141 of those came after the catch. (The bulk of those yards came on an 83-yard catch and run against the Jets last year on Thanksgiving when he took a pass from Tom Brady out of the backfield and outraced the field all the way to the end zone.)
Ultimately, while other bigger names grabbed the headlines, both Faulk and Woodhead were able to distinguish themselves as excellent and dependable supporting players. They grew into their role in the New England offense, and became key (albeit unheralded) ingredients in its success. It remains to be seen whether or not Vereen will grow into the same dependable and consistent presence, but he’ll certainly get his chance to be next in line.