Much of the heavy lifting on the topic of Shane Vereen as a fantasy contributor at the running back position has already been done. Shawn Siegele named him one of his top 10 sleeper RB’s over a month ago, Ryan Roulliard named him as breakout candidate even before the Aaron Hernandez news, Fantasy Douche showed that Vereen and Brady had a Gronkian-level connection when looking at A/YA. With the loss of Welker, Danny Woodhead, Brandon Lloyd, and Aaron Hernandez, 444 targets from 2012 are unaccounted for. Even giving all of Welker’s targets to Danny Amendola, the Pats have 269 targets to redistribute.
It’s probably irresponsible to assume that just one player out of Zach Sudfeld, Kembrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce encapsulate the rest of those targets. Thompkins seems to have a good connection with Brady, but that far from guarantees him 100 targets. At the bare minimum, Vereen seems to be a lock to fill Danny Woodhead’s old role, with upside to fill in Hernandez’s old ‘joker’ role, and possibly even some of Lloyd’s leftover split-end snaps.
Why exactly is it Vereen that fits better than Thompkins or Sudfeld into the general concepts of the Belichick offense? I think this excerpt from Chris Brown’s (@smartfootball on Twitter) book “The Essential Smart Football” shows Vereen’s exact value to the Patriots offense. (As an aside, Brown’s book is a must read for any seasoned football fan or fantasy football player. Truly tremendous work.)
Belichick’s use of Hernandez as a running back is the best example of how the Patriots outflank defenses. With no traditional runner in the game, Belichick can force the defense to substitute to an anti-zero-running-back personnel grouping. Once they’re in this pass-centric setup, Belichick can run the ball with Hernandez anyway. If the defense fails to react, the Patriots can drop back and run a pass play
Brown spells out exactly why Hernandez was a valuable asset to the Patriots despite his middling yards per target and weak red zone conversion rate in 2012. His value came from his ability to put defenses in uncomfortable positions. Having players who can play at multiple positions and convert in separate ways all on the same drive without leaving the field presents the Patriots with a massive tactical advantage and given Vereen’s ability as a runner and a receiver, I’m beginning to believe he may be even more valuable to the offense than Hernandez was.
Vereen’s touchdown in Week One of the preseason perfectly exemplifies why we’ve all deemed him an excellent fantasy sleeper. Not only do we have legit evidence that Vereen is at the very least a league average runner, but that play shows his talents as a receiver. Right in the middle of the Patriots no huddle offense, Vereen was able to split out wide and run a corner route for the touchdown. Considering that Hernandez had 11 career rushes over 3 seasons, I think it’s clear that Vereen is a more versatile and effective weapon.
Versatility and adjustment is what makes the Patriots offense work. That’s why beat writers have been adamant that Vereen is ‘going to get alot of touches‘ and why fantasy footballers have driven his ADP as high as RB30 (and why I feel comfortable taking him as early as the 5th in PPR leagues). Stevan Ridley has 26 catches in his combined years of college and pro ball, Lagarrette Blount has 25 in 5 years and in fact, out of all the other players on the Patriots roster, only Brandon Bolden rivals Vereen as a player with pass catching and rushing ability (76 catches, 10.6 yards per catch at Mississippi), but he appears to be a long shot to make the roster at this point. (That and his agility score of 11.49 is pretty bad.)
Projecting Vereen’s final stat line is difficult, but something like 1100 total yards and 8 touchdowns is well within the range of his outcomes. I don’t think it’s likely that we see Vereen running fades into the endzone every week, but that wasn’t the first time that Vereen ran a similar play for a touchdown from Brady. In fact, several game watching evaluators have basically same conclusion that I have: Vereen will be on the field a lot, and will have a chance to contribute as both a runner and a receiver. What makes Vereen’s value so great and upside so tantalizing is that he won’t just be running standard pass-catching running back routes, but rather be receiving high value down-the-field/endzone targets. Including the post-season, Vereen had the 12th highest aDOT of any running back in the entire league, and the 3rd highest of any back receiving more than 6 targets. That number will probably rise even higher in 2013, even if it means his sterling 79% catch rate dips slightly.
Given the Patriots need for Vereen to play an expanded role if they want their offensive dominance to continue, it’s not unreasonable to expect him to return RB2 value in 2013.