Does Maroney Have What It Takes?

Patriots second year running back is expected to carry the load. What if he can't? Do the Patriots have options?

Even though the Patriots are deep at running back, there's no doubt who the primary ball carrier will be this year. That job belongs to second-year back Laurence Maroney. As a rookie, he finished second on the team with 745 yards rushing, while splitting time with veteran Corey Dillon. Maroney probably would have ended up being the team's leading rusher in 2006 if not for a rib injury that cost him two games and limited his effectiveness late in the season.

Maroney wore a red non-contact jersey during training camp but made his debut in the Patriots' third preseason game against Carolina. He carried the ball 15 times for 58 yards against the Panthers and showcased both his power to break tackles and his speed to get to the outside.

Now healthy and sporting a more muscular physique to endure the physical punishment running backs take in the NFL, Maroney looks primed for a breakout year.

"He has a lot of potential. He just has to take everything in stride and execute on the field," Kevin Faulk said about the young runner. "But he's got the skills to do a lot of good things for us. Laurence is one of those guys that has special talent and if he continues to work hard, that's going to show up on the field."

Kevin Faulk has been a key member of the Patriots offense since 2000 -- his second season in New England after being selected in Round 2 of the NFL draft the year before. A one-time Heisman Trophy candidate at Louisiana State, Faulk's size has prevented him from being a feature back in the NFL. Instead, Faulk evolved into one of the league's most proficient third-down backs.

Faulk doesn't get the national publicity some of his teammates do but his blitz pickups and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield are invaluable to the Patriots offense. Even with Maroney getting most of the carries this season, Faulk is sure to be a major factor on passing downs, as both a runner and receiver.

Now entering his ninth season with the Patriots, Faulk also takes on a leadership role off the field, helping the younger running backs learn the Patriots offense.

"I'll help out as much as possible. Anything I can do to help my teammates," Faulk said. "Not just at my position but anybody on the team. If I can help them in any kind of way because I'm one of the longest tenured guys here then I'm all for it. Anything I can do to get people comfortable in the organization, that's great."

While Maroney is expected to be the go-to guy this year with the Patriots, the team brought in Sammy Morris to be the backup and spell the starter from time-to-time.

Morris has played in 94 games during his NFL career, with only 23 starts. He's been a valuable backup throughout his career with both the Bills and Dolphins. Morris' best year came in 2004 with Miami. He ran for 523 yards and six touchdowns when injuries thrust him into the starting lineup during the second half of the season.

Morris' versatility and knack for catching the football -- he has 112 career receptions -- makes him a solid backup to not only Maroney, but Faulk as well. When he first arrived in New England, Morris said he was going to watch Faulk closely because he expected to have a similar role with the team.

"I've learned a lot from him as far as study habits and picking up the small nuances of the offense," Morris said about Faulk. "This offense is a cohesive group and I think that's built on the small aspects of the game. That's something Kevin knows very well and is always willing to lend his advice to the rest of us."

Heath Evans was unemployed until the Patriots called him in November of 2005. Evans made an immediate impact by rushing for 158 yards in his first two games. He's only compiled 151 yards since but Evans contributes to the team in many other ways.

Since New England doesn't carry a traditional fullback on its roster, Evans does the bulk of the lead blocking for the Patriots. He's also used in short yardage situations, out of the backfield as a receiver and is a regular on special teams. Sort of a cult hero in New England with both fans and media alike, Evans sticks around not because he does any one particular thing great, but because he does a lot of things well.

"The one thing I know here is my role on every individual week," he said. "My style is my style and I don't have a problem staying in a particular role. Whatever I can do to help the team be successful."

Overall, New England has a deep, diverse stable of backs led by Maroney. And the Patriots version of the Four Horsemen isn't only talented, they're a close-knit unit as well.

"We have a really good, talented group here," Morris said. "We joke around a lot but at the same time we're able to push each other and make each other work harder. Whenever one of us is called on to go into the game, we'll be ready and the other guys will be there to lend their support. That's the way it is around here."

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