Days removed from the one-year anniversary of his placement on injured reserve, Dion Lewis made his return to the active roster on Saturday afternoon.
But in the absence of Lewis – who amassed 234 rushing yards, 388 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 85 touches over just seven games last season – the New England Patriots’ backfield has not been devoid of a spark.
James White has provided the flint.
The former fourth-round pick of out of Wisconsin had handled just seven carries and seven receptions through Week 9 of the 2015 campaign, taking a backseat to Lewis’ improbable resurgence two years from his last regular-season down. Though in White’s 18 appearances – including playoffs – since Lewis suffered a torn ACL against the Washington Redskins, he’s been far from an understudy.
White may not fit the by-the-books definition of a running back. He may not be the definition of a multipurpose threat, either. Yet in his focal purpose to the offense, the 24-year-old has become not only a trusted target for quarterback Tom Brady, but a target the Patriots would’ve been hard-pressed to go without.
Despite accounting for only 164 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 47 handoffs since Week 10 of 2015, White has managed to amass 700 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 69 catches.
There’s reason to believe that’ll continue as Lewis eases back into the gameplan.
“I think James White is a good player,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told reporters in his press conference Friday. “What he does is good. Could somebody do it better? I mean, I don't know. But it would take quite a bit I would say based on where he is and how consistent he's been with what he's done. It would take somebody playing pretty good to be better than him.”
White has never garnered more than seven handoffs in a single game since arriving in New England. But the 5-foot-10, 205-pounder has caught a pass in his last 18 games. And over that span, he’s caught five-plus passes seven times and gained 40-plus receiving yards eight times.
It’s been hard to take that type of steadiness off the field, even with big back LeGarrette Blount on pace for a career-best 1,218 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns this season.
So, the Patriots seldom have.
White has been in for 225 snaps thus far, which ranks 12th on the offense and ahead of wide receivers Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell. He has caught 29 passes along the way, which stands third behind only tight end Martellus Bennett and wideout Julian Edelman. And he’s been thrown to on 43 occasions, a tally only Edelman has surpassed.
In terms of the production gathered from those pass plays, White’s 258 receiving yards land fifth on the team while his three receiving touchdowns tie for second.
It is evident that White does not bring the open-field explosiveness or between-the-tackles power of the 5-foot-7, 195-pound reserve-futures signing that preceded him. But White has made his case out of what he brings.
“You just got to be yourself,” White told reporters in the days that followed Lewis’ injury last November. “You can’t be Superman and do exactly what he was doing. Like I said, I’m going to do whatever I can. My role may be different than what his role is, I mean, you never know what it is. Whatever I have to do, I’m going to do it.”
A year later, White’s sentiment has held true. He’s been himself.