NEW ORLEANS – When Shane Vereen signed with the Giants as a free agent, concern bloomed about who would replace him as the Patriots’ third down back.
Now, the concern may not be about finding a guy but choosing from a number of quality candidates.
On Saturday night in New Orleans, James White and Dion Lewis carried 12 times for 45 yards and two touchdowns. The pair of sawed-off running backs also added six catches (5 by Lewis) for 56 yards.
By contrast, big backs Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount combined for 20 carries and a meager 37 yards.
Aside from Lewis and White, though, the Patriots also have Travaris Cadet, a free agent from the Saints who was outstanding before going down with an injury that’s kept him on ice for two weeks. And there’s Brandon Bolden, primarily a special teams player who also takes reps in the third down role.
Vereen was (is) a good player and he had a great Super Bowl, but he was not a rare talent. Any of the four players in the mix could approximate Vereen’s output.
What will be interesting is seeing which guy the Patriots choose. White was the presumed successor after a rookie year spent apprenticing. He just needed to get a little stronger and show the ability to run through first contact.
He did his best job of that in two years on Saturday.
“I felt good,” said White, a fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin in 2014. “I wanted to come out here and when I got an opportunity I wanted to play fast, do my job and have fun.”
White had one run in particular when he met contact, got a great body lean to avoid getting his legs wrapped up, bounced off and continued for an 11-yard gain.
“I want to work on all of my game and whatever I can do to help, I want to do,” White said when asked about being able to run with more aggression. “Whether that’s running physical or putting my shoulder down, when that’s what has to be done I’m going to do it.
White had to wait a while for his shot Saturday because Lewis got the early reps at third down back.
Lewis was a brilliant college player at Pitt (second-team All-American in 2009 as a freshman following a 1,799-yard season), but his career got off track when he declared for the draft after his sophomore season.
Drafted by the Chargers in 2010, traded during that draft to the Eagles, later traded to the Browns in 2013, Lewis needs to make an impression fast to gain some momentum in his career.
He absolutely did Saturday. With seemingly shrewd pass protection work, a couple of electric moves in space after pulling in screens and one bullish 11-yard touchdown run, Lewis looked too much like the Patriots’ most famous 33 – Kevin Faulk – to ignore.
“I’m just trying to get better,” said Lewis when it was mentioned he had a style similar to Faulk. “I;m just looking at tape and worrying about myself. He was a great player.”
Lewis did allow himself to give a tepidly positive review of his night.
“I did okay,” he said. “I still got a lot of work to do. I gotta clean up some little things technique and all that. It’s a good start. Just work hard and anything’s possible. People look at me as if I’m just a smaller guy but I worked real hard all season to get as strong as I could and this is something to build on.”