As we count down the days to training camp, Around the League will examine one player from every team set for a breakout campaign in 2012. We next take a look at the defending AFC champions, the New England Patriots.
Over the past two seasons, BenJarvus Green-Ellis has led the New England Patriots in rushing. In 2010, Green-Ellis ran for 1,008 yards, becoming the third running back in the Bill Belichick Era to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season (Antowain Smith had 1,157 yards in 2001, and Corey Dillon ran for 1,635 yards in 2004). Last season, Green-Ellis' yardage fell under 700 yards, but his 11 touchdowns were tied for the sixth-most in the league.
The Patriots take a committee approach to the running game, and Green-Ellis moving on to the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency has created an opening for a new committee chairman. Candidates for the role include former Indianapolis Colts running back Joseph Addai, Danny Woodhead, and second-year players Shane Vereen and Ridley, who appears to be the back who is best-equipped to replace Green-Ellis.
Ridley played under 20 percent of the Patriots' offensive snaps last season, yet finished second on the team with 87 carries for 441 yards, adding one touchdown. Of Ridley's 87 carries, 51 came on first down, with those runs gaining 274 yards, a 5.4-yard clip that bested Green-Ellis' 3.7 yards per carry on first-down runs. At 5-foot-11 and 223 pounds, Ridley has a similar build to Green-Ellis and should be able to handle the physical pounding of a 200-plus carry season.
Ball security will be an area where Ridley will need to demonstrate improvement to earn the No. 1 job. Ridley's impressive production at the end of the 2011 regular season was marred by a pair of a fumbles, one in the regular season finale and a second in the divisional playoff win over the Denver Broncos. Though neither were costly -- the Patriots were up 42-7 when he lost the fumble to the Broncos -- he was either inactive or did not play in the final two playoff games. If Ridley can protect the football in training camp and the preseason for the demanding Belichick, he may be able to keep Addai, Woodhead and Vereen on the sidelines in 2012.