Adam Kaufman

Stevan Ridley Isn’t Getting Cut, Patriots Fans

Stevan Ridley 5.jpg

I think we can agree, all the more so in the wake of All-Pro guard and face of the offensive line Logan Mankins’ trade to the Buccaneers, few moves could be classified as “shocking” when coming from the offices of Gillette Stadium. In fact, short of dealing Tom Brady elsewhere, speculation involving any Pats player is fair game.

NFL rosters have already been trimmed to 75. By Saturday at 4 p.m., those same squads will stand at 53.

Several New Englanders, from mainstays of recent years to new faces, are on the bubble. Backup – or is it third-string, now? – quarterback Ryan Mallett, impressive preseason receiver Brian Tyms, safeties Tavon Wilson and Patrick Chung and, thanks to the conjecture of prominent and well connected Patriots beat writer Mike Reiss, even starting running back Stevan Ridley.

Why Ridley? You know why. Over the last two seasons, the back’s second and third in the league, his hands have developed a case of the yips.

Ridley put just two balls on the ground (one after a catch) over 17 games as a rookie in 2011, and the dropped carry was recovered by the Pats. In his last two years – spanning 34 contests – the 25-year-old has fumbled nine times and relinquished seven of them. Often times at the worst possible moments, much to the dismay of coach Bill Belichick.

The back’s slippery fingers or failure to grasp the football with two hands has irked “Ball Security Bill” in the past to the point of Ridley being benched on multiple occasions, left downtrodden on the sidelines with a ball firmly cradled in his arms as he watched LeGarrette Blount steal his job.

Months later, Blount is a member of the Steelers and the job entering camp once again belonged to Ridley.

However, in New England’s second preseason game with Philadelphia, Ridley coughed up yet another ball following an efficient effort that had resulted in 45 yards on nine carries. Some have speculated he was down before the ball popped loose but, no matter, the score sheet after the game credited Ridley with a fumble.

In speaking with reporters, Ridley said the same stuff he’s likely grown immensely tired of repeating.

“I need to avoid those plays…I’m gonna learn from it…I can’t get down about it, I can’t harp about it…I will try not to have this issue.”

There was obviously more, but that’s the crux of it. Fumbling is a no-no, Ridley knows it, and he’s having trouble avoiding the job-risking habit.

All of that said – and with respect to Reiss and his astute observation of Ridley’s low snap count total during the “dress rehearsal” game versus Carolina – the youngster isn’t packing any bags this weekend except for maybe a Week 1 trip to Miami.

Mankins, on the books for a cap hit of $10.5 million before his trade, could be viewed as overpriced for his position and gradually declining talents. Ridley is entering the final year of his rookie contract, due a modest $939,750. For his abilities – a 2012 season, for instance, that produced 1,479 total yards and 13 touchdowns – he’s a bargain.

It’s easy to claim the running back position isn’t as important as it once was unless your team possesses an Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, or Jamaal Charles, or that any back is capable of rushing for 1,000 yards in the right system or with enough carries, but projecting is different than producing. Ridley – strong, explosive, and effective when he retains the ball – has done it. He’s also been immensely durable.

Consider the other options.

Shane Vereen is best used as passing-down back. As evidenced by the fact he had more receptions (47) than rushing attempts (44) in 2013, even as Ridley faltered, Belichick knows where Vereen excels.

Brandon Bolden has never once fumbled in his 22 career games, but he’s proven inconsistent despite a healthy 4.9 yards per carry in limited opportunities. Is he ready to carry the ball up to 300 times when he’s never totaled 60 attempts in a season? Plus, like Vereen, Bolden has dealt with injuries in the very recent past.

Then there are the rookies; James White, a fourth-round selection out of Wisconsin, and Jonas Gray, an undrafted, four-year product from Notre Dame – who’s been out of school since 2011.

White was dynamic in college as a four-year starter, averaging better than 1,000 yards and 11 TD’s on the ground, but he’s been mediocre at best in preseason action. Gray impressed in his opportunity again the Eagles, running for 98 yards on a dozen carries before going quiet against the Panthers, but it’s worth noting he never reached the end zone in college prior to his senior season, when he erupted for a dozen scores. The sample size for success is very small.

On paper, both White and Gray may provide reason to be excited. But games aren’t won on paper. In the NFL, save for the preseason, they’ve never been tested. In an offense filled with question marks, is Belichick really prepared to support Brady with a potentially unreliable back before at least giving Ridley one last chance at opening the season with a sure-handed confidence?

I may be alone here, but that feels a little like simply expecting Rob Gronkowski to be healthy for 16 games without, I don’t know, acquiring another receiving option.

If you’re skeptical of Ridley’s performance going into a new season, you should be. Still, that’s not reason enough to part ways with him without a firm placeholder in tow, such as a former 1,000-yard rusher like Blount. Right now, that guy isn’t on the roster.

The Patriots still need Ridley, just as much as he needs them. Belichick knows it, which is precisely why the fourth-year starter will be taking handoffs from Brady on Sept. 7.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

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