For Patriots running back Stevan Ridley, 2013 may be his biggest challenge yet as a professional football player.

The former 3rd round pick out of LSU is coming off of the 2nd best team rushing seasons for a New England running back during the Tom Brady era, and he’s heading into a year where his football team will likely need him to put together yet another repeat performance.

With Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman as the team’s only two receivers with any experience coming back this season, odds are pretty good that early on the team may experience some growing pains during that transition as Danny Amendola and the other new guys get acclimated. If Gronkowski isn’t 100% to start the year, Ridley’s role will be even more critical as they try and work some of the newer guys into the line up.

One thing to keep an eye on is how Ridley handles himself coming off of a vicious helmet shot in the AFC Championship game that resulted in a fumble and left him with a concussion on what would be his final carry of the year. ¬†In a league where a hit like that can turn a promising career upside down, Ridley’s goal heading into this season needs to be on making sure that doesn’t happen to him. So far this offseason he’s been working hard and claims he’s put the hit behind him, and he appears poised to make the Patriots ground game even better than it was last season.


Patriots running back Stevan Ridley needs to build on his solid performance last season as a full-time starter. (FILE:USPresswire)

Ridley told ESPN Boston back in May that situations like that are just part of football, and he doesn’t sound concerned heading into 2013.

“It was a nice hit that I took, but you just have to shake it off. It comes with the game,” he said. “Sometimes it’s to others and sometimes it’s to ourselves. But either way, I love the game. I love football. It’s going to happen sometimes. You just have to roll with it.”

Going all the way back to 2001, it’s hard not to appreciate just how good of a performance he had last season. ¬†His 290 carries were 3 more than Antowain Smith had during the Patriots first Super Bowl run, with his 1263 yards eclipsing the 1157 that Smith rushed for that year. ¬†The only other Patriots running back who was better than Ridley over that span was Corey Dillon’s 2004 performance, with Dillon carrying 345 times for 1635 yards while averaging an impressive 4.7 yards per carry.

Former running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 1008 yards on 229 carries during the 2010 season, which had been the best performance from a running back since what Dillon had accomplished six seasons prior.  However, the Patriots still elected to draft Ridley after that season and in 2011 the rookie split time with Green-Ellis and carried 87 times for 441 yards, finishing the year with an impressive 5.1 yards per carry. He definitely appeared to give them a more explosive presence in their backfield, and showed enough to cause New England to let Green-Ellis move on in free agency. Some questioned the move, but there was no question Ridley appeared to be the better option.

Last season he proved them right. ¬†But if they’re going to survive all the personnel turmoil at the receiver and tight end position following Aaron Hernandez’s arrest and the loss of Wes Welker to free agency, they’re going to need to continue to have a viable rushing attack. That means Ridley will need to be just as good, if not better this season.

As good as he was last year, he wasn’t perfect. He struggled in short yardage situations down near the goal line, where during the regular season he carried 19 times inside their opponents 5 yard line for a total of -1 yards, including 8 tackles for a loss and 2 carries for no gain. ¬†He still managed 8 touchdowns, but New England still needs him to be better this season.

So far during mini camps all reports are that he looked great, with many even saying he looks bigger and stronger than he did last season.  That will hopefully make him a better player down inside scoring territory, and give Brady and the offense a threat to hopefully keep opposing defenses honest and allow them to be more efficient putting points on the board.

Either way he’s already put together a strong showing in his first full season carrying the football for this team. ¬† Now it’s up to him to prove that last year wasn’t an¬†aberration and that his best is still to come.

Check out this video from Patriots.com where they recently caught up with Ridley as he works out at LSU while preparing for the upcoming season.