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2015 on: James White’s receiving rank among NFL backs

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James White tacked on five catches for 85 yards Sunday, furthering his place in the NFL’s top tier.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

There is a knack for every back on the New England Patriots’ roster.

And it’s OK to start singing “My Sharona” when it comes to James White’s.

Dating back to his ascension in 2015, following what was a redshirt rookie season, the former fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin has caught the football 143 times. He signed a three-year, $12 million contract extension a few months after setting Super Bowl records – including 14 receptions – because of that proclivity.

White’s role is well-tailored to his strengths, and to different degrees, so are Mike Gillislee’s, Dion Lewis’, Rex Burkhead’s and Brandon Bolden’s. That was reinforced on Sunday when the stable combined for 95 rushing yards and 163 receiving yards while keying the kicking game.

“Yeah, we had a lot of production out of our running backs,” head coach Bill Belichick said following New England’s 21-13 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, via Patriots.com. “You saw it. They all had a role. They all were productive for us. They all helped us a lot running and catching, blitz pickup, kickoff return, so those guys did a great job.”

In no small part was White, who snared five passes while withstanding collisions and wiggling into open space for a team-high 85 yards.

White isn’t the one you expect to see on a goal-line trap, a first-and-10 power or a fourth-and-medium punt block. That’s fine; he’s handled just 89 carries over the last two-and-a-half regular seasons while logging 20 snaps on special teams. But No. 28 is expected to pass protect, and when he isn’t doing that, he’s there to remind defenses of what can happen when you don’t protect against him.

That held true versus Los Angeles.

“I mean, he's so dependable and consistent,” quarterback Tom Brady told reporters in his postgame press conference. “He does a great job for us, and he does it in run game, pass game, blitz pickup. I mean, he's just a great player.”

Brady has offered similar praise many times over. And with good reason: White has run his flat, screen, angle and wheel routes into the company of less than a handful.

We’re not talking about Tony Collins and Leroy Thompson, with whom the 25-year-old resides in the franchise single-season archives alongside, but a select group of backs around the NFL since Week 1 of 2015.

White’s production in the passing game has put him in the top-4 since then, according to Pro Football Reference, despite the fact he’d caught just eight passes through Week 10 of that season.

RANKS AMONG BACKS SINCE 2015

  • Third in targets – 193 (Duke Johnson: 196, Theo Riddick: 201)
  • Third in receptions – 143 (Duke Johnson: 150, Theo Riddick: 158)
  • Third in receiving yards – 1,326 (Duke Johnson: 1,372, David Johnson: 1,403)
  • First in receiving touchdowns – 10

“Ever since he's been here I've always said I wanted his quickness and I always dream when seeing him, the way he can move side-to-side is just unreal,” said tight end Rob Gronkowski. “It's not surprising at all to see how he gets open on linebackers on third down. Just dump it to him and he makes guys miss.”

White’s last 38 regular-season appearances have asked him to draw 193 pass attempts, which lands behind only Duke Johnson’s 196 with the Cleveland Browns and Theo Riddick’s 201 with the Detroit Lions. His 143 receptions, meanwhile, sit one ahead of the Atlanta Falcons’ Devonta Freeman and behind Johnson’s 150 and Riddick’s 158. As for receiving yards, White’s 1,326 rank third at his position over that span, with the Arizona Cardinals’ David Johnson holding a commanding lead despite appearing in only this season’s opener due to injury.

But no back has gotten to the end zone more frequently through the air than White since the start of 2015.

And the 5-foot-10, 205-pounder has only gotten there once so far in 2017.

White currently leads Patriots’ passing attack through eight games this season with 43 receptions – which is second-most among NFL backs behind Carolina Panthers first-rounder Christian McCaffrey – and stands fourth on the team with 365 receiving yards. He’s also third in the backfield with 28 carries for 120 rushing yards. And, aside from Brady, Gillislee is the only Patriot who’s touched the ball at a higher rate than White this campaign.

Gillislee has handled 98 carries for 355 yards with four touchdowns and no catches, accounting for 130 fewer yards from scrimmage than White. Again, a different knack for a different back.

“We have a lot of different guys who can do a lot of different things, so we just accept our roles,” White told reporters in the locker room Sunday evening. “We know we’re not going to be out there every single play, so when the ball is in our hands, or we have to block or run the right route, we just want to do the right thing and make smart plays for our team.”

And at the bye, White’s plays in the passing game have him on a 16-game pace for 86 catches and 730 yards.

That’s where the likes of Collins and Thompson return to the Patriots’ part of the discussion. White, though, is making himself part of the leaguewide one.