It's All Up To Maroney Now

When the New England Patriots decided that Corey Dillon would be granted his request for release, it put Laurence Maroney in the role of feature back. Although the team will probably carry five or six running backs, including 2007 draft pick Justise Hairston, it's Maroney's performance which will determine the unit's success or failure.

Feeling Lucky?: Pats Put All Their Chips In The Middle With Maroney
By Rich "Mell-o" Lyons

"You are merely a general. I must be a king." ~Lawrence of Arabia

After years of having anything but a good ground attack, the Patriots have enjoyed a good amount of success in the last few years. Antowain Smith turned out to be a pleasant surprise in his short tenure with the Pats, and Corey Dillon had a career year in 2004 before injuries and a lightened workload cut into his production. Now, after being heralded as the pre-season Super Bowl favorites by many experts, the Patriots will turn to Laurence Maroney to carry the running attack by himself in 2007.

This will be Maroney's second year in the league, and already, he has shown signs of brilliance and potential to become a star in this league. It's no surprise that Maroney was able to make an impact on the team, but the extent of his impact in just his rookie year sent shock waves around New England. With one stiff arm in Cincinnati, Laurence Maroney was no longer looked at as just another rookie, but as the future of the franchise.

When the Pats took Maroney in the first round of the '06 Draft, it clearly sent a message to the team and the fans that Corey Dillon was not going to be the long-term solution at running back for this team. With defensive studs still on the board, including Manny Lawson and DeMeco Ryans, who would have helped an aging linebacking core, they instead decided to draft a runner, which made a good amount of sense considering the Pats ranked 24th in overall rushing, and 30th in yards per carry.

With the combination of Dillon and Maroney in the backfield, the Pats were able to make an instant improvement in their running attack. New England gained 1969 yards, 457 more yards than their amount in 2005, which was good enough for 12th in the league. In addition, their yards per carry went from 3.45 to almost four yards, which was the fifth best improvement from the two years (Atlanta, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Tennessee).

New England Patriots running backs Corey Dillon, left, and Laurence Maroney celebrate after the Patriots defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 38-13 in this file photo taken at an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2006, in Cincinnati. The Patriots released Dillon Friday, March 2, 2007, cutting ties with the top active runner in the NFL on the first day of free agency. Dillon, 32, increasingly split duties with rookie Maroney last season and has said he was considering retirement.(AP Photo/David Kohl,file)

However, this year, a member of the two-headed backfield giant has been let go, and now, the pressure falls squarely on Maroney to try and duplicate what he and Dillon accomplished last year. Of course it would be asking too much of him to do anything close to what Dillon did in 2004, so what kind of expectations should Patriot fans have for Maroney in 2007?

First, Maroney's health issues will have to clear up to really be able to even project any kind of number for him. However, knowing the way Bill Belichick hides the severity of injuries, Maroney's health for the season opener at Giants Stadium will likely be unknown. Belichick has stated that he expects Maroney to be ready for training camp, he hasn't been exposed to contact since his off-season shoulder surgery, so his effectiveness is unknown. Maroney was able to play through a nagging back injury last year, so he's used to playing in pain. This will be a different scenario however, as Maroney will likely get 250-300 carries this season, which is a big jump from the 175 attempts he had last year.

The good news for Maroney is that, unlike San Francisco, Kansas City, and other run-heavy teams, Maroney will not be the focal point of the offense. With the additions to the passing game, and one of the better quarterbacks of this generation at the helm, Maroney will not be under nearly as much pressure as a guy like Frank Gore, who plays with a relative newcomer to the league in Alex Smith, and a below-average receiving core, meaning Gore has to be "Mr. Everything" for the Niners.

The bad news about Dillon leaving is that, for the first time, Maroney will not have someone of equal talent to split carries with him. While Maroney was playing at Minnesota, he played with Marion Barber III, who had over 200 carries in both years he played with Maroney, and Gary Russell his junior year, who rushed for over 1,000 yards.

The depth at running back for the Pats is anything but solid. New England went out and signed Sammy Morris to back up Maroney, but he's only had 100 attempts once in seven seasons, so Morris will only get about five or six carries a game. Kevin Faulk is third on the chart, but outside of third down plays, you will rarely see Faulk line up in the backfield, as he is used much more in the passing game. Speaking of which, look for the Pats to use Maroney more as a receiving threat, as he averaged 8.8 yards a catch on 22 receptions.

While health issues and a lack of experience being the number one guy could alter how effective he will be, the fact remains that from his college days and the small sample of time he's spent in the NFL, Laurence Maroney has the potential to be a featured back in this league. If he is able to overcome those obstacles, you're looking at a guy with 1,500 yard potential. While he may not get the amount of carries to hit that mark, Maroney can be thankful to be in a system where he does not have to worry about carrying the offense, and can be eased into the role of featured back with the improvements made to the passing game, and an experienced signal-caller lined up behind center.

Rich Lyons is a Boston fan and recent USC Gamecock graduate. You can read more of Rich's material on Sports Central or on his personal sports blog "Mell-o's Thoughts." Rich can also be reached through his MySpace page.

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