Tyler Gaffney rushed for 1,709 yards as a senior at Stanford, but missed all of his rookie season with a knee injury. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
With NFL free agency kicking off next week, and the Patriots likely looking to add at the running back position for potential Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen replacements (if either departs via free agency), a player currently on the Patriots roster may be getting overlooked — Tyler Gaffney.
The Patriots claimed the rookie running back off waivers last July when the Panthers tried to sneak Gaffney through after he suffered a season-ending torn lateral meniscus in his left knee during training camp. The Stanford product was placed on injured reserve by the Patriots, but the sixth round pick has a lot of talent and could be a player ready to take over for either Ridley or Vereen if either were to sign with another team this offseason.
His former coaches have no doubt Gaffney will succeed with whatever the Patriots ask him to do.
“He’s excited,” Tavita Pritchard, Gaffney’s running back coach at Stanford, said over the phone this week. “Definitely coming off a Super Bowl year he wants to make a name for himself in that league and like I said, I think whatever fit the Patriots give him he is going to take with and run, and continue to go from there.”
Gaffney rehabbed with the Patriots all season and is now back on the Stanford campus working out. Pritchard said Gaffney’s recovery is on schedule and he’s excited for the 2015 season.
A gifted athlete, Gaffney was actually drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 24th round of the 2012 Major League Baseball draft. He played with the State College Spikes, the Pirates’ short-season affiliate, that summer and had a batting line of .297/.483/.441. The running back gave up baseball after that though, returning to Stanford in the spring of 2013 for his senior season.
He started in 14 games finishing with 330 rushing attempts, 1,709 rushing yards, and 21 rushing touchdowns in 2013. His best game came against Oregon at home when the Cardinal upset the Ducks, 26-20. Gaffney carried the ball a school-record 45 times for 157, not one carry going for more than nine yards, according to Pritchard. He said that game was the best example of the one word to describe Gaffney — tough.
“First of all, the first word to describe him is, tough,” Pritchard said. “He’s one of the toughest individuals I’ve ever been around. Mentally tough. Physically tough. You can tell by his college film just his ability to run through contact, carry the ball multiple times in a game and I think that will be his calling card with just his physicality. I know with the Patriots that is something they hang their hat on as well. Just the toughness about him from a schematic standpoint, but everyone in that organization fits that persona. I think Tyler fits right along with that.
“With him being a Patriot I think that is what you can expect — more of the same. A guy who is absolutely just tough minded, but with him he’s a pretty smart individual too. Played multiple sports obviously. He just has a good feel for athletics in general.”
When asked what type of back Pritchard is, he said he can be an every down back — carrying the ball on first and second down and the catching the ball out of the backfield on third down. Because of the backs ahead of Gaffney in his early years at Stanford, catching passes on third down was a way to get on the field.
“He catches the ball extremely well,” Pritchard said. “Early in his time at Stanford he was actually more of a third-down back, mostly because we had other backs, obviously Toby Gerhart when he first got here and then Stepfan Taylor in those later couple years. He was more used as a third down back. We were able to split him out. He has some route running ability. He catches the ball extremely well, so he did that for awhile and then obviously when he got back he was our every down back. He got it on first and second down and then he stayed in on third down, unless he needed the blow. I see him having the ability in having all those things.”
Gaffney was drafted in the sixth round by Carolina, but then he suffered the injury and before he knew it he was on a new team, in a new conference. It was a difficult time for the 23-year-old.
“He was bummed just because it happened right around the injury,” said Pritchard. “That was the overriding emotion. The injury was tough, he was going to have to sit out. The Patriots thing came as a surprise and it all happened at once and before he knew it he was in Boston, getting surgery and rehabbing. It all happened very, very quickly. The thing about Tyler is he loves to play ball. Wherever he gets an opportunity to do that he is going to play his heart out that’s for sure.”
As for what his role might be with the Patriots, Pritchard knows the Patriots like versatile players, and Gaffney has the ability to do a lot of different things. He’s expecting his former running back to quickly gain the trust of the Patriots coaching staff and eventually make a name for himself in the NFL.
“It will be interesting because the reputation of the Patriots they use their personnel in such of way that they are creative of them — splitting [Rob] Gronkowski out and splitting backs out and bringing those guys back in the back field,” said Pritchard. “They have a history of using guys in unique ways. I am interested to see how they use Gaffney because they aren’t traditional in that sense. Whatever he ends up doing I know he will excel at and I am sure he will start out with something small and continue to build trust there.”