Monday October 3rd, 2011

Stevan Ridley is running for 8.2 yards per carry so far in his rookie season. (

You're no doubt aware by now of the Patriots' dynamic duo of tight ends from the 2010 draft: Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. In a win over the Raiders Sunday, the Patriots showed off their 2011 draft find to the world: running back Stevan Ridley.

With Danny Woodhead sidelined by an apparent ankle injury, all Ridley did was rush for 97 yards, including a 33-yard TD, on just 10 carries. And just like that, it looks like the Patriots have done it again.

Woodhead was cut by the Jets last year, then proceeded to run for more than 500 yards in New England. The current starter, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, signed as an undrafted free agent prior to 2008 -- he topped the 1,000-yard mark on the ground in 2010.

Ridley looks like he'll be the latest sleeper-turned-star in New England.

The Patriots drafted Ridley in Round 3 of April's draft at No. 73 overall after New England, as it's wont to do, traded down from No. 60. Ridley was projected to go somewhere after the second round. New England didn't even necessarily look like it needed Ridley when he was selected, just 17 picks after the Pats nabbed Cal RB Shane Vereen.

But just like with Gronkowski and Hernandez, who quickly have turned into arguably the NFL's most feared TE tandem, Ridley is paying off early.

Woodhead's status going forward could determine how much Ridley is on the field -- though, New England coach Bill Belichick has never hesitated to use a revolving-door strategy in the backfield.

The Patriots showed some of their flaws in a Week 3 loss to Buffalo, but their Week 4 win at Oakland was vintage New England. Despite Woodhead's injury, Hernandez's absence and the Raiders holding every Patriot not named Wes Welker to a combined 68 yards receiving, New England scored 31 points.

How will Ridley's sudden emergence impact Woodhead going forward?

Well, the Pats' most recent revival story had just two carries for 13 yards -- and was on the field for just six snaps -- before leaving the game for good with that hobbled ankle.

Did the Patriots purposely use Ridley more knowing that Woodhead was banged up heading into Sunday? Or is there a changing of the guard under way?

Woodhead rushed for 69 yards in New England's opener but has just 46 yards rushing since then, topping out with 21 against Buffalo. Ridley had 42 yards rushing in that loss to the Bills.

Part of the reason the Patriots can go into free agency and the trade market and take shots on guys like Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth is that the franchise continues to show a knack for uncovering hidden gems. Ridley looked like he could be an NFL contributor at some point down the road, but it's taken just four weeks of his rookie season to stake a claim in the Patriots' backfield. Another draft and another success story for New England.

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