New England Patriots running back James White is expected to become a larger part of the Patriots offense now that Dion Lewis is expected to miss the first 8-10 weeks of the season.
White played well enough in Lewis’ place in 2015, although Lewis is clearly the superior ball carrier. White also didn’t have the luxury of playing with Julian Edelman and a healthy Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, and offensive line which allowed opposing defenses to key in on White in the backfield.
According to head coach Bill Belichick, White has spent the offseason trying to improve as a runner in order to increase his value on the field.
“[White is] very dependable, very consistent,” Belichick said in Monday’s press conference. “I think he has worked on his role in the running game carrying the ball, which he did a lot of in college. He hasn't done a lot of it here. He was mainly a passing game player last year and didn't play two years ago in his rookie year. [He was] mainly a passing game player last year but he has taken a more active role in the running game this year, so I think he continues to develop.”
And it’s true. I watched and charted all of White’s 29 snaps this preseason and I think there’s reason to believe that his role is going to grow in 2016.
White played 16 snaps against the Saints and 13 against the Bears and had 5 carries- all against the Saints (two came on two-point conversion attempts).
One thing I noticed about White is that he does a good job of following his blockers, but there’s only such much he can do if the blockers don’t do their jobs. He’s not like LeGarrette Blount, who can brute force his way through a defender to pick up a couple yards.
In this play, you can see White is trying to follow the pulling guard Josh Kline.
Tight end Martellus Bennett doesn’t get a clean block on the edge and gets pushed back into Kline. As a result, Kline isn’t able to get a clean block of his own on the linebacker and White starts to bounce further to the outside. But wide receiver Aaron Dobson expected White to be on the inside, so when White bounces further outside the defensive back had a clear line towards the ball carrier.
This play only picks up three yards because Bennett isn’t able to win his battle on the edge. White still finds a way to dodge a defender and fall forward for the three yard gain.
White’s quickness is very apparent when he’s on the field. It doesn’t look as shifty and fluid as Dion Lewis’ because White runs more upright, but it’s there. White’s job is to transfer that open field ability into success between the tackles.
When asked about the difference in “elusiveness” in the open field and in between the tackles, Belichick said, “if that's the type of runner you are then it is the same skill. It's just that you have less space, generally.”
“It's still reading blocks,” Belichick continued, “setting blocks up, and then being able to accelerate either with speed or some combination of speed and or power to break arm tackles and get through the line of scrimmage.”
And on the very next play, White showed his elusiveness between the tackles.
You can see White planting his feet and driving between left guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews. Right guard Josh Kline does a nice job getting to the second level and buying White some time in the open field.
White gains roughly six extra yards in the middle of the field by chopping his feet through the line of scrimmage and then lowering his shoulder into the linebacker. It’s a great run and it shows his potential.
And if White can be just a mediocre runner, then his value will skyrocket because he’s already extremely proficient as a receiver and a blocker.
“I think the thing that jumped out with [White] was how proficient he was in the passing game based on what we saw in college, and I think his run skills were good,” Belichick said. “I think they [his running skills] are good. I think they need some refinement. It's a little bit different in this league. I think he can run the ball in there and he has taken more reps at doing that and I think that has helped him.”
White ran routes on roughly 20 of his 29 plays and ran 10 of those plays after offering help as a chip blocker on the edge. He stayed in for blitz pick-up on 4 snaps. The majority of his routes were just into the flat, but he threw in the occasional wheel route, crosser, corner, post, and screen.
His ability as a receiver in the screen game was on display against the Bears.
White should’ve been tackled five yards behind the line of scrimmage, but he somehow manages to turn it into a 14-yard gain. Left guard Joe Thuney and wide receivers Chris Harper and Chris Hogan offered some excellent blocks in the open field and White did the rest with his quickness and change of direction ability.
But what will get White on the field even more is his fearlessness in pass protection.
White was a key player in the two minute drill and he deserves to be considered more than just a third down player. He played 9 snaps on first down, 7 on second down, 8 on third down, and 2 on fourth down. He played in an extra three two point conversions, including the last image you see above.
White is growing as a runner and is already an accomplished blocker and receiver. This should be his best year in the NFL.