Around the AFC East, Week 2: New England Patriots

Quick: name the last time the New England Patriots had a prolific rushing threat.  You may have to answer that question with a resounding "Corey Dillon", as the Patriots haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the past four seasons.

Quick: name the last time the Patriots' lack of a dominant rusher actually mattered.  The answer, of course, is "never", as in each of those four seasons (2005-2008), the Patriots have ranked No. 24, No. 12, No. 13 and No. 6 in rushing - essentially improving every season - while winning 49 of 64 regular season games.

Still, I'd imagine that if I'm a Pats fan looking for something to gripe about - their lives are so difficult - the rushing attack would be one of the most frequent starting points.  New England's offense is clearly first-rate, but with a legitimate rushing threat, it could be legendary.  Instead, the team has five players that could see significant touches from the position next season.  MaPatsFan, lead blogger at Pats Pulpit, helps us figure out who'll be doing the most ball-carrying next season in New England.

With tons of picks and a pretty deep draft at running back, the Patriots surprised a few folks (including me) who expected them to take a runner at some point on draft day.  Now you enter 2009 with a plethora of backs - including Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and signee Fred Taylor - but no clear-cut starter at the position.  Is there enough to work with here, and how does the run game stand to improve with a new play-caller, given Josh McDaniels' exodus to Denver?

MaPatsFan: Actually, we did draft running back Julian Edelman (Kent State), but at No. 232 overall, that pick was easy to miss.  I think the starter will be Laurence Maroney.  Given the revelation that he was playing with a broken bone in his shoulder, I think he got a lousy shake last year and was unfairly labeled as fragile.  I'm somewhat ashamed to say I was among those involved in the chastising, but it wasn't entirely without merit given the lack of information (Maroney was told to keep quiet about his injury).  Shoulder aside, Maroney has a tendency to "bounce" off linemen rather than decisively slice through a hole, something Sammy Morris is very good at.  I've been a HUGE Sammy Morris fan, but he's 32 this year; we need Maroney to step up.

Kevin Faulk is, well, Kevin Faulk.  It's hard not to classify this guy as one of the most beloved Patriots in recent memory.  Always clutch, he's a scary third down specialist with great hands.  When we had backfield injury trouble in 2008, Kevin jumped in and would do what he needed to do.  BenJarvus Green-Ellis (nicknamed "Law Firm" because his name is so long) was a surprise.  Not a star, but he certainly grew up fast and got some valuable reps in the process.  I could see him backing up Maroney in the future.

Fred Taylor is the wildcard in all of this.  He's got far more downhill/breakaway speed than the rest of the guys; it remains to be seen if he still has gas left in the tank.  But Fred's greatest value is twofold: a) mentor to Maroney ("Fragile Freddy" went through some of the same issues early in his career, too) and b) as some competition to light a fire under Maroney.

I have begged for a running game to balance out the aerial assault the Patriots have become known for.  I saw flashes of a decent running game last year and will be excited to see what this crew will do.  Maroney may get the most snaps, but I think this will be a backfield by committee.

***

First thing's first - I don't mean to put MaPatsFan in his place, but I highly doubt that Julian Edelman will be a running back at the NFL level.  He was a quarterback at Kent State, and at 6'0" and 196 pounds, he doesn't have the bulk to hold up as a running back.  Most clubs were looking at him as a wide receiver; that's what he's listed as on the Patriots roster, and he could get some Wildcat looks on occasion as well.  Not that that really matters.

I'm with MaPatsFan, however, in that I think it is clearly Maroney's job to lose in New England.  He's killed the Bills; in four career games, he's carried the ball 50 times for 227 yards (4.54 yards per carry) and a score in four Pats wins.  Perhaps I'm a bit biased because of that, but Maroney's talent, when healthy, is undeniable.  The rest of the clan, including Taylor at this point in his career, are just role players.  Two things are clear: successful fantasy teams will steer clear of New England's backfield this year, and this rushing group won't come close to holding back New England's prolific offense.

Two more AFC East-centric interviews coming your way today.  Stay tuned!

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