FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen joined the New England Patriots on the same day, a mere 17 picks separating them in the 2011 draft.

This may be the year the two share the marquee with the team’s top players.

With Tom Brady needing to adjust to a new corps of receivers — the top seven pass catchers from last year are missing from New England’s training camp, either no longer with the team or recovering from injuries/surgeries — the running game may carry a heavier load this year than it has in a while.

And, said Ridley, they’re ready.

“We’re young, we’re hungry and we’re ready to play,” said Ridley, who led the Patriots with 1,263 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns last year.

He was speaking of the entire corps of running backs, one that includes, along with him and Vereen, Brandon Bolden, LeGarrette Blount and Leon Washington, who is primarily a return man but brings some much-needed experience to a relatively young group.

Asked if this group was ready to carry a bigger load, Ridley said, “Ready or not we’re going to have to do it.”

He knows that Brady will continue to be the triggerman and that over time he will develop a chemistry with new receivers like Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Michael Jenkins and Jake Ballard.

But the fact remains that the running game could be very good. Each back brings a different style, something that Vereen said is vital.

“Everyone’s different,” said Vereen. “And I think that’s what makes us special.”

All five starters return on the offensive line, lending more credence to the possibility that the Patriots will play a much more physical game that they have in recent years.

Vereen said the entire group of running backs is ready.

“I think when our number’s called that we’ll be able to perform,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go, but we rely on each other to get the job done. It’s not just one of us.”

Coach Bill Belichick often talks about the noticeable difference in players from their first to second year. Coming off last year, both Vereen and Ridley feel much more confident.

“I think in the running back room we know we have a lot more experience now,” said Vereen. “We’re a year older. That’s not to say we’ve made it or we’re close to where we need to be yet. But with the experience comes confidence.”

Ridley, a cut figure at 5-foot-11, 220 pounds, should be the lead back. He’s a tough inside runner and has earned that role, though he also knows he has much to learn.

“You have to focus on all aspects of the game,” he said. “You’ve got to be an all-around player. You can’t just run the ball. You can’t just catch the ball. You can’t just be a blocker. If you can be a complete back that’s the best back you can be, especially in this offense.”

Vereen, 5-9 and 205 pounds, is a change-of-pace back who could fill Danny Woodhead’s role, or Kevin Faulk’s. Bolden showed flashes of brilliance in his rookie season last year. Blount is a former 1,000-yard rusher from Tampa Bay.

Washington is dangerous any time he has the ball in his hands. But his role with this team may be one of an elder statesman for the other backs. He provides a great example for the younger players.

“I’m here to help the team in any way I can,” he said. “I’m a football player. That’s my role.”

And, he added, that’s the only role any of the backs should be concerned with.

“The only role that we have, and each player will tell you this, is coming and help this team out, whatever that might be,” he said. “The coach asks you to do whatever it is to help this team out, we don’t get into specifics.”

The younger backs have leaned on Washington much since he arrived this offseason, trying to pick his brain much like they sought out the veterans when they first arrived.

“For us, we’ve learned from some of the best,” said Ridley. “Kevin Faulk, look at BenJarvus Green-Ellis, look at Danny Woodhead. They paved the way for us. They showed us how to do it the Patriot Way. So for us, as young guys, we’ve had examples in front of us.”

And now they know what they need to do.

“Just step up and be the playmakers that we are,” said Ridley. “We’re here for a reason and the team’s going to rely on us a little heavier. For us, we just have to go out there and be the players we are. I’m excited about it.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

mlowe@pressherald.com

Twitter: MikeLowePPH