Patriots' RB Vereen filling the void of both Woodhead and Hernandez
Woodhead was the complementary third-down back who entered the game in passing situations, allowing between-the-tackles runner Stevan Ridley to stay fresh for early-down work. Woodhead was the team's second leading rusher (76 carries, 301 yards) and finished fifth on the team in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns (40 catches, 446 yards, three touchdowns). Woodhead left as a free agent this spring and is now playing for the San Diego Chargers.
Hernandez was emerging as one of the elite tight ends in the league, entering himself in a group with the likes of Jimmy Graham and teammate Rob Gronkowski. One of the faster, more athletic players at his position, he was an extremely versatile piece for the Patriots that allowed Belichick to get very creative on offense. As I'm sure you have heard, Hernandez is being tried for murder and his football career very well may be over.
Enter Shane Vereen, a second-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Vereen has gotten very limited playing time thus far in his career, as he was limited by injuries during his first season, and has been stuck behind Ridley for early-down work and Woodhead in passing situations ever since. However, given the recent departures of Woodhead and Hernandez, Vereen will now have a golden opportunity to earn a significant role in one of the league's most dangerous offenses.
So far in Patriots training camp, Vereen has acted as the team's primary passing-down back, filling the shoes of Woodhead. In addition, he has been lining up as a receiver both in the slot and split out wide - these are roles that were often occupied by Hernandez. Though he was always listed as a tight end, Hernandez was more of a hybrid type, frequently being sent in motion and lining up all over the formation, sometimes even in the backfield. Vereen has reportedly been sent in motion quite a bit so far in camp, and it looks like offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is ready to give him a crack at filling Hernandez's role.
Obviously, the 5'9'', 205 pound Vereen won't be lining up at tight end and blocking linemen and linebackers on run plays, but as far as the passing game goes, Vereen looks to factor in quite a bit.
The most important goal of a Patriot receiver during camp is to earn the trust of quarterback Tom Brady - if he has faith in you, he'll turn you into a productive receiver. Karen Guregian has stated that Vereen already "appears to be one of Brady's safety valves during passing situations," and that Brady is often using him "as he would have Kevin Faulk or Danny Woodhead."
It looks like Vereen already has clearly established himself as the trusted third-down back, while he could also earn himself early-down work as an alternative to the departed Hernandez.
Vereen makes for a very intriguing sleeper in fantasy drafts considering his expanded but still uncertain role. As of now, it looks like his floor is around the area of what Woodhead did last season (Woodhead ranked 28th among running backs in my Yahoo PPR league). If his role expands to become an early-down receiver in addition to his third-down running back duties, he could establish himself as a very reliable fantasy back and be one of the big steals of the season (you know, like Ridley was last year).
Keep an eye on how the Patriots use Vereen during preseason games - it should be both interesting and telling of how the team will use the versatile running back.