The Patriots announced Thursday they have release wide receivers Jeremy Johnson and Reese Wiggins. The active roster now stands at 87 players.

Here’s a portion of the release issued by the team on the moves:

The Patriots announced Thursday they have release wide receivers Jeremy Johnson and Reese Wiggins. The active roster now stands at 87 players.

Here’s a portion of the release issued by the team on the moves:

Johnson, 22, was signed by the Patriots as a rookie free agent out of Southern Methodist on May 27. The 6-foot, 180-pounder, led SMU with 112 receptions for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns as a senior in 2013 and earned All-American Athletic Conference Second Team honors. Johnson finished his four-year college career with 196 receptions for 1,936 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Wiggins, 23, was signed by the Patriots as a rookie free agent from East Carolina on May 27. The 5-foot-11, 185-pounder, earned All-Conference USA Honorable Mention as a senior in 2013 after finishing with 26 receptions for 372 yards and four touchdowns. Wiggins finished his career at East Carolina with 80 receptions for 1,012 yards and eight touchdowns.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

WEEI_FantasyFootball_2013_hdr_v6

Let’s take a look at draft value based on a player’s average draft position. It’s a good way to get a quick feel for where the big values might be in drafts when August rolls around. As we like to do at Rotobahn, we’ll be counting the values down from late selections to the early ones. Jim Hackett and I will get into some of these players in Friday’s podcast, so be sure to check that out. For a look at our take on the top 200 fantasy options for 2014, head on over to Rotobahn.com, where you will also find scouting reports on over 60 rookies and early projections for the upcoming season.

ADP data was obtained at Fantasy Football Calculator.

Andrew Hawkins

Andrew Hawkins

Andrew Hawkins, WR, Browns — ADP 224

He’s not being drafted at all in smaller leagues, and you can get him very late in large formats, as his ADP indicates. That’s not bad for a player who could be the Browns’ top receiver in 2014. Frankly, if he stays healthy, I can’t see anybody else on the roster outplaying him. In fairness, that speaks to how underrated Hawkins currently is, but it also speaks to how woefully thin Cleveland is at receiver.

Odell Beckham, WR, Giants — ADP 163

Do not wait until 163 to draft this guy. Beckham, for whatever reason, is being ignored in fantasy circles and we think he’s a potential WR3 in 12-team leagues. As we said in his Rotobahn scouting report, Beckham has perhaps the best hands we’ve seen since we scouted Michael Crabtree. He’s also got all the skills you want a receiver to have, including outstanding agility and speed. He should fit right into the Giants offense and could be a fantasy force from Day 1. He’s a steal at his current ADP.

Justin Hunter, WR, Titans — ADP 159

Hunter’s ADP has risen about 10 spots over the last month … and he’ll jump a bit more before most of us draft, but he still projects as a value this season. He should be ready to take a step forward in 2014, and with Kenny Britt now gone, Hunter’s snap totals should more than double. We expect him to be a starter or an in-effect starter. He has a chance to post double-digit scores if things go well in Tennessee. Hunter is by far the most explosive athlete the Titans have on offense. He has WR1 upside in long-term leagues and has the upside to be a WR2 this year. He should be off the board somewhere around the 100 mark in our opinion. He’s a potential steal right now.

Aaron Dobson, WR, Patriots — ADP 138

This could change, and you may pay a bit more for him in this part of the country, but Dobson is a pretty solid WR3 option in 12-team leagues if he’s healthy — and the news on his foot has been positive lately. If he’s starting at split end, he’s worth a pick closer to 100 overall, and he’d still have some upside there due to his touchdown potential.

Marvin Jones, WR, Bengals — ADP 129

As with Hunter, Jones’ ADP has risen a bit this summer and he’ll move up another round, and perhaps more in the coming weeks, but we still like him at that price tag. He’s a much more complete player than he gets credit for, and he should have no problem holding on to the starter’s spot opposite A.J. Green. He looks like a borderline WR3 to us in 12-team leagues with upside to be more.

Martellus Bennett

Martellus Bennett

Martellus Bennett, TE, Bears — ADP 141

This guy’s ADP is a bit mind-boggling to us. He’s a stud talent in a great offense, and he’s going to see single coverage all year long. Bennett is a big part of the passing game whether the Bears are between the 20s or in the red zone. We expect TE1 numbers if he stays healthy. At 141 overall, that’s a great value. Heck, he’s a value at 100.

Kenny Stills, WR, Saints — ADP 122

Stills played an amazing 61 percent of the Saints’ offensive snaps as a rookie in 2013, and that number is expected to rise in 2014. We’d be shocked if Stills wasn’t a WR3-caliber performer in 12-team leagues, and he has some upside if you draft him at that level. People still are underestimating how good the former Oklahoma Sooner is. If you can draft Stills any time after 100 players have been taken, you are getting a very nice value. We expect his ADP to rise a bit more, and we’ll be keeping tabs on him in camp. Our original scouting report on Stills is worth a look if you are not all that familiar with him.

 Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks — ADP 118

Are you kidding me? I’m blown away by this one. People obviously are concerned about Seattle’s receivers, but Wilson is getting a healthy Percy Harvin back, which more than makes up for the loss of Golden Tate. We also love the Seahawks‘ draft. We are very high on both Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood. Both could pay immediate dividends. There are currently 14 quarterbacks getting taken ahead of Wilson, and while we can make an argument for all of them, we would rather point out that taking Russell Wilson as your QB1 at 118 or thereabouts is highway robbery and a great way to play the QB position this season. We think he’s an utter steal anywhere after Round 8 in 12-team leagues. This is why you wait on QBs, folks.

Tavon Austin, WR, Rams — ADP 111

There’s some risk here, which is why a player with Austin’s absurd talent is available this late. This is an example of fantasy GMs overadjusting to a rookie who performed like a rookie. If you can draft Austin anywhere near his ADP as your fourth or fifth receiver, I think it’s well worth the risk. I’d be shocked if he didn’t improve on last year’s numbers.

Khiry Robinson

Khiry Robinson

Khiry Robinson, RB, Saints — ADP 100

Robinson could be a huge value when you look at the composition of the Saints backfield going into 2014. With Darren Sproles gone to Philadelphia, we see a shift coming. We think you’ll see more power running and play-action with the usual affinity for the screen game. While we still expect Pierre Thomas to have some PPR value, we see a regression from his 2013 numbers. With both Kenny Stills and rookie Brandin Cooks, the Saints will be able to get back to taking big shots downfield off of the power run game and out of their spread formations. On the ground, we expect the Saints to rely heavily on both Robinson and Mark Ingram, but Ingram’s injury history makes Robinson the more appealing fantasy option. He’s a potential steal at 100 overall. Robinson could evolve into a RB2 option in 12-team leagues as the season progresses, but I anticipate flex value in 12-team leagues early on.

Kyle Rudolph, TE, Vikings — ADP 99

He can be your starter in any format and most any league size, and you can usually get him in the ninth round. That’s good value for a Norv Turner tight end with talent in abundance. I think we know all the names at this point. The point is that Turner’s tight ends tend to have big years, and we expect a TE1-level campaign from Rudolph unless he gets hurt.

Eric Decker, WR, Jets — ADP 93

The disrespect visited on this player is reaching epic proportions. How many touchdowns does a guy need to score to earn some fantasy love? Do people forget that Decker scored eight times while catching passes from Tim Tebow? Decker is not just a product of Peyton Manning. Getting Decker anywhere near his current ADP is theft — pure and simple. He’s going to be the Jets’ most targeted receiver and he’ll have fantasy value by sheer attrition. Take the former Bronco as your WR3 and enjoy the rewards.

Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick, QB, 49ers — ADP 89

Read the tea leaves, folks. The 49ers muddied the waters at most of their skill positions with the additions of Stevie Johnson, Bruce Ellington and Carlos Hyde. While that throws a stick in the spokes of us fantasy GMs, it’s all good for Kaepernick’s value. This year’s model can easily play without Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore or Vernon Davis if need be. They have the depth. CK currently is the 11th QB being taken, and that makes him a stellar value in any league. Right now he is the other QB to wait on in addition to Russell Wilson. We like Jay Cutler, too, and a few others, but with Wilson and Kaepernick, you get youth and healthy track records in addition to great scoring potential.

Terrance West, RB, Browns — ADP 86

This one requires a small leap of faith, but I plan on taking that leap in a few drafts this year if West’s ADP stays roughly where it is. I spent a few minutes with the Towson star at this year’s combine and I was impressed with his businesslike attitude. He was a player with a clear idea of what he needs to do to get where he wants to be. Since I spoke with West, he was drafted by Cleveland, and that means he’ll be running in Kyle Shanahan‘s zone scheme. I like the fit, and with starter Ben Tate‘s injury history, I am looking at West very seriously as a Round 8 investment. You can get a good look at West in his Rotobahn scouting report.

Tom Brady, QB, Patriots — ADP 74

Brady was not far off the QB1 pace in 2013, and that was with just about everything going wrong. If you get 16 games out of Rob Gronkowski, I think Brady can be a top-six quarterback. The Patriots retained his most trusted option from 2013 in Julian Edelman, and I like Aaron Dobson’s potential on the outside if his foot proves to be 100 percent by the start of training camp. With the departure of LeGarrette Blount, we see fewer games being dominated by the run and more games with Brady being Brady. I see a bounceback year for fantasy purposes and a nice value if you can get him around his ADP.

Michael Floyd, WR, Cardinals — ADP 57

This one is a head-scratcher for sure. Floyd has already arrived, folks. He was one of our 2013 breakout candidates. He also plays in an improving offense that should provide him more scoring chances than he saw in 2013. I’m getting Floyd consistently in the fifth round in 12-team drafts, and that’s insane value by our math. We think he has WR1 upside this season and a WR3 floor barring injury. Take him anywhere after Round 3 in 12-team leagues as your WR2 and you will have done well.

Chris Johnson, RB, Jets — ADP 52

If you draft Johnson at his ADP, you are getting a running back who finished in the top 12 in most scoring systems in 2013 despite playing all four NFC West teams. In 2014 the Jets get the NFC North, which is more favorable, to put things mildly. When I reviewed Johnson’s 2013 film, he was still a very fast back. As a Jet, Johnson will yield some snaps and a good portion of goal-line duties to Chris Ivory, but that’s nothing new to Johnson, who has never made his bones by racking up a lot of short touchdowns. The now tight-fisted Jets paid him a lot of money, especially when you look at what free agent backs were paid in 2013. They didn’t shell out big bucks for Chris Ivory insurance, folks. Johnson is going to get the ball. He has RB1 potential in 12-team leagues.

C.J. Spiller, RB, Bills — ADP 31

People are understandably concerned after Spiller’s rough 2013, which was marred by a high-ankle sprain. Making matters worse was the Bills’ total mismanagement of that injury. No way would we risk a first-rounder on Spiller after watching the Bills last season, but we are very happy to take him in Round 3 as an RB2 with high-end RB1 upside. It’s a no-brainer from a risk standpoint — the kind of pick that can win you a league. We’re loving Spiller at his current ADP in all formats.

Andre Ellington

Andre Ellington

Andre Ellington, RB, Cardinals — ADP 30

We have Ellington rated nine spots higher and we actually project him to produce RB1 numbers in PPR leagues if he can stay healthy. Ellington has a hammer lock on a big role in an improving offense. His offensive line will be significantly better in 2014 and his snap total conceivably could double in comparison to his rookie campaign. If he’s available at 30 overall, I am definitely looking to draft Ellington. He was one of our underrated rookies in 2013. Check out his original scouting report.

Doug Martin, RB, Buccaneers — ADP 24

He was a first-round pick in a lot of leagues last year and his season ended early due to a shoulder injury. Martin should be 100 percent for 2014, and we are not as concerned about the competition in his backfield as the general public seems to be. Martin still should be the primary goal-line option and should get the majority of the carries. He could see a diminished role on third downs, but he was never an every-down back in the first place. According to Football Outsiders, Martin played 78 percent of the snaps in his rookie season. I suspect that he’ll play nearly that much in 2014 if he stays healthy. Right now in most drafts you can get him as your RB2 with the last pick of the second round. Not bad at all.

DeMarco Murray, RB, Cowboys — ADP 15

We have Murray ranked well inside the first round, so we think you are getting a steal if you can draft him at his current ADP. Murray will get the ball a ton in all phases of the game and he’s now running behind a very solid offensive line. If your league uses PPR scoring, that only increases Murray’s value. He caught a healthy 53 balls in 2013 and that number could actually increase in 2014 with new passing game coordinator Scott Linehan running the show.

Blog Author: 
Peter Davidson
Logan Mankins is the straw that stirs the drink for the New England offensive line. (AP)

Logan Mankins is the straw that stirs the drink for the New England offensive line. (AP)

As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We opened wide receiver, tight end and running back. Now, it’s the offensive line.

Depth chart: T Nate Solder, G Logan Mankins, C Ryan Wendell, G Dan Connolly, T Sebastian Vollmer, G/T Marcus Cannon, C/G Bryan Stork, T Cameron Fleming, G Jon Halapio, G Chris Barker, C/G Braxston Cave, G Josh Kline, T Chris Martin, T Jordan Devey

Overview: Traditionally one of the strongest and deepest spots on the roster, in 2013, the Patriots offensive line showed a few cracks. There were times where they had issues, particularly in the early going when it came to pass protection. Some of the problems can also be blamed on the fact that, as a group, the offense as a whole was still searching for an identity and struggling with the acclimation of so many new faces at the skill position slots. (If you think of the offense as a series of chain reactions, Tom Brady has to hold the ball a second longer while a young receiver gains separation. That means an offensive line has to hold his block a second longer. When you are facing some of the most devastating defensive fronts in the league, that can be a challenge for any offensive line.) And some can be blamed on health issues — Vollmer missed eight games because of a leg injury, while Solder was out with a head injury and Mankins suffered several bumps and bruises along the way.

But don’t look for the offensive line to offer any excuses. It’s a proud group that continued to hold itself to an almost impossibly high standard regardless of the opponent and situation. Despite the fact that it lost Vollmer and Solder for a stretch, it’s important to remember Patriots were one of three teams in the NFL last year to rush for at least 2,000 yards and finish with at least 4,000 yards passing. You don’t put up those kinds of numbers without a strong, dependable and versatile offensive line.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Logan Mankins is one of the toughest guys in the NFL.

When it comes to toughness — both mental and physical — Mankins remains the gold standard for anyone who has ever strapped on a New England helmet. (‘I’ve coached a lot of tough guys,’ said Bill Belichick late last season after Mankins came back from injury. ‘I don’t think there’s any that I would put ahead of him. Maybe some on that level, but none ahead.’) Mankins, who played the entire 2011 season on a torn ACL, came back from an ankle injury late in 2013, and ended up playing the second-most snaps of any left guard in the league, according to Football Outsiders (1,164). He also managed to move from his traditional left guard spot out to left tackle after Solder went down with an injury. He may not have been at his best last season — the combination of injury, age and the fact that New England faced some of the most devastating front sevens in the league all contributed to that. But Mankins at 75 percent is still better than most of the rest of the league.

2. The Patriots feel pretty good about their left tackle situation.

If you could pick one spot on the offensive line where stability and consistency are most important, it would likely be left tackle. And when it comes to New England’s situation, they have to feel pretty good about where it stands with Solder, at least at this point in his career. The first-round pick out of Colorado in 2011, he’s done a good job stepping into the shoes of Matt Light. He’s started 44 of a possible 48 regular-games over the course of his career, and has consistently graded out as an above average left tackle. One more thing about Solder — when you consider the going rate for above average left tackles this offseason, the Patriots made the right move in locking him up for another year when they exercised the club option for 2015 on him at a cost of $7 million. In this era, considering Solder’s play in his first three years, it’s money well spent.

3. As camp dawns, there are questions about the interior, specifically right guard and center.

It’s telling that two of the three offensive linemen drafted by the Patriots this year were interior linemen — specifically, a highly-regarded right guard (Halapio) and center (Stork). When it comes to the Halapio/Connolly debate, the issue with Connolly is not so much his level of play. Instead, it’s whether or not he performs to the level of his contract: Entering the final year of a contract that is set to pay him $3 million, he could be a veteran cut if Halapio appears ready for prime time. (For what it’s worth, Kline also played well at guard in his lone start last season against the Ravens.) As for center, Wendell has performed well since taking over on a full-time basis in 2012, but he’s played a ton of snaps the two years. (Per Football Outsiders, he was fourth among all offensive linemen last year with 1,197 snaps, and second in the league with 1,231 in 2012, trailing only Solder.) However, Wendell was second on the team in 2013 with 42.3 snaps per blown block. Has he worn down slightly from overuse? Or is it the stress of having to deal with guys like Mo Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Haloti N’gata on a weekly basis? It’s debatable — the Patriots faced some of the best fronts in the league in 2013 season. But New England’s decision to use a fourth-round pick on Stork, as well as the fact that Wendell drew almost zero attention on the market as a free agent this offseason (he signed a two-year deal to return to New England), might not be completely coincidental.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. How will the change in coaches affect the overall level or quality of play?

The move from Dante Scarnecchia to Dave DeGuglielmo as the position coach makes an already intriguing situation all the more interesting this season. Scarnecchia, who had coached the New England offensive line for the last 15 years, was a rock-solid presence for not just the offensive line, but also the franchise as a whole. As a result, even if DeGuglielmo followed his approach to the letter, there’s bound to be some bumps in the transition.

2. Who is going to be the backup swing tackle?

The Patriots were hoping veteran Will Svitek could have filled that role last season, and while he saw limited action, the Patriots turned more toward Cannon to fill the position. (New England also got a game at left tackle from Mankins after Solder went down late in the season — Kline filled Mankins’ old spot at left guard when the veteran moved to tackle.) Cannon held up pretty well while showing some nice positional versatility. (He also stepped in at right guard briefly for Connolly when he went down with a foot injury.) This year, there are two candidates to fill the role — Cannon and Fleming. Expect that to be one of the more interesting positional battles of the summer.

3. How many of the rookies will make the 53-man roster?

We are believers in Stork (more on him shortly), and sincerely think that the Patriots find a way to sneak Fleming through somehow. (You’ve got to get a rocket scientist on your roster.) Halapio is a very interesting case — a sixth-round pick out of Florida, he looked impressive throughout the course of the spring practices while working along the interior. However, our pal Miguel Benzan had an interesting note about the chances of a sixth-round pick making the roster.

Regardless of his odds, and based on how he looked in spring workouts, it appears that Halapio has a shot.

By the numbers: Over the course of the regular season,. the Patriots utilized four different starting lineup combinations along their offensive line. (That’s down from five in 2012.) Overall, as a result of injury and personnel decisions, New England had 14 different starting lineups on offense over the course of the regular season, tied for third in the league. (By way of comparison, Seattle, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Tampa Bay tied for the league lead with 16 each.) The league also listed the Patriots with 293 unique offensive lineups, which was seventh highest in the NFL. And among the final four teams left at the end of the playoffs, they had the lowest percentage of plays featuring the most common lineup at 2.45 percent.

Key new player: Stork. At times over the course of the spring practice sessions, it appeared the rookie was on a continuous loop around the practice fields because of some infraction, either real or imagines, in the eyes of the coaching staff. But his versatility (he played tackle, guard and center as a collegian) and his resume (he was the Rimington Award winner while starting every game this past year at center for the national champions) suggest he could push for a job sooner rather than later. While he does have a background at multiple positions, the 6-foot-4, 300-pounder will most likely get his best chance at center, where he could challenge incumbent Wendell.

The skinny: The offensive line has played a sizable role in the success of the New England offense over the last decade-plus, and this year will be no exception. The veteran leadership of Mankins, the steady and consistent work of the tackles (health willing) and the infusion of youth and arrival of a new position coach in DeGuglielmo should all make for an interesting mix up front for the Patriots in 2014. Certainly one of the positional groupings worth keeping an eye on this summer.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

The mystery over Armond Armstead has ended in retirement.

The 23-year-old defensive tackle originally signed with the Patriots on Feb. 1, 2013, after one season with the Toronto Argonauts. The 6-foot-5, 305-pounder, who was brought in as potential depth along the defensive line, was placed on the Reserve/Non-Football Injury List on Aug. 26, 2013.

There was plenty of speculation about his future in New England before the move to place him on the NFI list and over the course of this offseason, including OTAs and minicamp.

Armond Armstead (97) was a rare sight on the practice field for the Patriots after dealing with surgery to treat infection in 2013. (AP)

Armond Armstead (97) was a rare sight on the practice field for the Patriots after dealing with surgery to treat infection in 2013. (AP)

The mystery over Armond Armstead has ended in retirement.

The 23-year-old defensive tackle originally signed with the Patriots on Feb. 1, 2013, after one season with the Toronto Argonauts. The 6-foot-5, 305-pounder, who was brought in as potential depth along the defensive line, was placed on the Reserve/Non-Football Injury List on Aug. 26, 2013.

There was plenty of speculation about his future in New England before the move to place him on the NFI list and over the course of this offseason, including OTAs and minicamp. Armstead could never fully recover after surgery on July 29, 2013 to treat an undisclosed infection.

But all of that ended Wednesday, eight days before the opening of full training camp.

‘€œIt has been a pleasure being around Armond, as he gave everything he could to play for us,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday in a team-issued statement. “Armond worked extremely hard since joining us last February. He’€™s had a lot of adversity personally that he’€™s had to deal with ‘€“ unusual compared to most other players ‘€“ but he’€™s always had a great attitude, worked hard and really did everything we asked him to do. While it is unfortunate he will not be able to play football, Armond is an outstanding young man who has a very bright future in whatever path he chooses.’€

Armstead played for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League after signing with the team as an undrafted free agent in 2012 out of the University of Southern California. He compiled 43 tackles, two special teams tackles and six sacks with Toronto. He was also named to the CFL All-Star game and helped Toronto win the Grey Cup. He started in 24 games at USC from 2008 through 2010.

Blog Author: 
Mike Petraglia

According to a court filing (via The Associated Press), the District Attorney’s office claims that the fiancee of accused murderer Aaron Hernandez repeatedly lied to a grand jury and that it has “direct evidence” to prove it.

According to a court filing (via The Associated Press), the District Attorney’s office claims that the fiancee of accused murderer Aaron Hernandez repeatedly lied to a grand jury and that it has “direct evidence” to prove it.

Prosecutors say their evidence contradicts the testimony of Shayanna Jenkins, who has pleaded not guilty to perjury related to the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd. Her attorney has attempted to have the charge dismissed.

At one point, Jenkins told the grand jury she could not recall where she disposed of a box that she put in a trash bag, covered with baby clothes, and that she was not hiding her actions. Hernandez allegedly directed her to get rid of the box, the contents of which are unclear.

Jenkins, who was granted immunity before testifying, is free on personal recognizance.

Blog Author: 
Jerry Spar
Stevan Ridley is heading into the last year of his contract. (AP)

Stevan Ridley is heading into the last year of his contract. (AP)

As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We opened wide receiver and tight end. Now, it’€™s running back.

Depth chart: Stevan Ridley (178 carries, 773 rushing yards, 7 TDs), Shane Vereen (44 carries, 208 rushing yards, 1 TD; 47 catches, 427 receiving yards, 3 TDs), Brandon Bolden (55 carries, 271 rushing yards, 3 TDs; 21 catches, 152 receiving yards), James Develin (4 carries, 10 rushing yards, 1 TD), James White, Stephen Houston, Jonas Gray, Roy Finch.

Overview: While the passing game occasionally stalled out in 2013, the running game became one of the positions of strength down the stretch last season. While Ridley struggled with fumble issues (so much so he was benched for a December game against the Texans) and Vereen had health problems, it was LeGarrette Blount who provided a boost midway through the year. And after Vereen returned to full health and Ridley bounced back from his ball security issues, that trio formed an impressive group that powered the Patriots late in the regular season and into the divisional playoffs against the Colts. In particular, it was Blount who led the way — after being hooked up to the rejuvenation machine, he produced 431 yards in a three-game stretch (two at the end of the regular season and one playoff game), including 189 yards in the regular-season finale against the Bills. Bolden and Develin did well providing depth, with Bolden seeing an uptick in snaps when Vereen was on the shelf. And Develin provided one of the highlights of the season with his Csonka-esque TD run against the Texans. Going forward, Blount left for Pittsburgh as a free agent, but the Patriots used a fourth round pick on White, a Wisconsin product who fumbled just twice in 754 career touches as a collegian. In addition, they picked up Houston, Gray and Finch, with at least one of them likely ticketed for the practice squad.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. When healthy, Shane Vereen is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the league.

Vereen played in just eight games last season because of a thumb injury, and while there were some ill-timed drops in the second half of the year, was still able to finish with 47 catches and 44 carries. It’€™s one thing to become a 40-40 guy — Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead were the last New England running backs to turn the trick. However, it was made all the more impressive by the fact that Vereen did it in just eight games. The full range of his impressive abilities were on display in the 2013 opener against the Bills where he had 14 carries and seven catches, and averaged 7.57 yards every time he touched the ball. If he can ever stay healthy for a full 16-game season, he has the potential to reach Sprolesian levels.

2. The Patriots believe in the fullback.

The last few years, New England had occasionally added part-time fullbacks to the roster, but players like Lousaka Polite and Lex Hilliard usually only ended up sticking around Foxboro for a few weeks before moving on. But in 2013, for the first time since they had Heath Evans on the roster in 2008, the Patriots employed a full-time fullback in Develin. He was one of 11 fullbacks to finish the year with at least 325 snaps over the course of the regular season, per Pro Football Prospectus. And while he didn’€™t post crazy offensive numbers — four carries, 10 yards and a touchdown — he was an effective member of the offensive game plan. In perhaps a nod to Develin’€™s effectiveness in 2013, according to Football Outsiders, the Patriots were one of the few teams to run better from two-back formations (5.0 yards per carry) than from single-back formations (4.6 yards per carry).

3. At running back, the Patriots are planning for the future.

New England entered the offseason as one of the deeper teams at the running back position — at least before the departure of Blount — but that didn’€™t stop them from using a fourth-round pick on White this offseason. In addition, they added three rookie free agents, including an intriguing prospect in Finch who impressed many in spring workouts. With Ridley and Vereen heading into the final years of their respective rookie deals, it’€™s hard not to look at the collection of youngsters and wonder if New England is guarding itself against the potential loss of one of both of them following the 2014 season. That’€™s not to suggest that White or any of the rest of the rookies aren’€™t capable of providing support this season. It just seems that in a perfect world, the Patriots might have their eye on White, Finch and the rest of the backs as potential contributors in 2015 and beyond.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Can Ridley keep ball security issues at bay?

Ridley had fumble problems throughout the 2013 season, and while he rounded into form late in the year — he had 63 straight touches without a fumble to end the year — people are still going to wonder about ball security issues. He fully admitted this spring that he’€™ll be in the spotlight this year when it comes to avoiding turnovers, and can erase any sort of doubts if he can hang on to the rock for the bulk of the 2014 season.

2. Can Vereen stay healthy?

Vereen was dogged by wrist and groin problems in 2013, with the former leaving him sidelined last year for eight games. (He was placed on IR-designated for return after the opener against Buffalo.) When he did return, the wrist likely played a role in the fact that he ended the year with a whopping nine dropped passes. He told ESPN Boston this past spring that his surgically repaired wrist still isn’€™t completely healed. As a result, his pass-catching skills will certainly bear watching when camp convenes later this month.

3. Which one of the rookies has the best chance to make the 53-man roster?

Probably White (more on him shortly), but Finch showed enough in OTAs and minicamp to indicate that he could make it tough for the Patriots to try and get him through waivers and to the practice squad. A 5-foot-7, 167-pounder out of Oklahoma, Finch was a multidimensional threat for the Sooners — as a collegian, he had 262 carries for 1,412 yards and eight touchdowns to go with 58 receptions for 442 yards and two touchdowns. He looked good through the spring sessions, showing a nice pair of hands out of the backfield.

By the numbers: In 2013, the Patriots were one of three teams to finish with at least 2,000 yards rushing and at least 4,000 yards passing. (Green Bay and Philadelphia were the other two.) New England has had good offensive balance in years past, but were almost always considered a pass-first bunch. (Frankly, when you have Tom Brady under center, it just makes sense.) But in a year where the Patriots needed the running game to assert itself, the backfield really did an impressive job stepping into the void.

Key new player: White. The 5-foot-10, 194-pounder — who appears to have an awful lot of Vereen-type of qualities — finished his Wisconsin career ranked No. 4 in school history with 4,015 rushing yards, including a career-high 1,444 yards on 221 carries (6.5 average) and 13 touchdowns. He also finished third all-time at UW in rushing touchdowns (45), which is tied for the eighth-most in Big Ten history. But the stat that really jumps off the page are his fumbles. Or back thereof. He fumbled just twice in 754 career touches as a collegian.

The skinny: The 2013 Patriots came within two wins of becoming the first team since the 1987 Redskins to win a Super Bowl while employing a running back by committee. (Defined as a team that had at least four different backs finish the year with 40 carries or more.) With the departure of Blount — and the expected return of Rob Gronkowski, which should give a boost to the passing game — don’€™t look for New England to spread the wealth in similar fashion in 2014. However, the Patriots will still rely on multiple backs to move the chains on the ground. Both Ridley and Vereen will be fascinating studies this year — both are expected to get the majority of work in 2014, but both are entering the final year of their rookie deals. How long will New England wait when it comes to potentially re-signing them? Will the fact that he doesn’€™t have a deal beyond this season be a distraction for Ridley? And how will Ridley respond if ball security issues become an issue again? The combination of questions will make the running back spot one of the most intriguing positions on the Patriots roster this upcoming season.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

Sports Illustrated legal expert Michael McCann joined Dennis & Callahan on Tuesday to discuss the latest on former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. To hear more from D&C, go to the Dennis & Callahan audio on demand page.