Of the nine men the New England Patriots selected during the 2014 NFL draft, only one is still with the team: running back James White. Even though the team’s rookie class that year may not have produced the desired long-term quantity and depth, the Patriots did end up with who is arguably their second most valuable offensive player behind quarterback Tom Brady – at least seven weeks into the 2018 regular season.
White, a fourth-round selection (pick #130) four years ago, started slowly into his tenure with the team as head coach Bill Belichick remembered during a conference call yesterday. “He didn’t really get a chance to play much his rookie year here,” said Belichick about the Wisconsin product. “That was Shane [Vereen]’s last year.” As a result, White saw action in only three games during his first NFL campaign.
With Vereen leaving New England after its win in Super Bowl 49, the stage was set for White to take over and fill the important role as the Patriots’ third down back. What followed were three productive years as an integral member of the team’s offensive backfield: between 2015 and 2017, White averaged 86.7 touches and almost 600 scrimmage yards per regular season. His most notable performance during that span came in the playoffs, though.
With the Patriots fighting their way back from a 28-3 deficit in the third quarter of Super Bowl 51, they regularly turned to White to help dig them out of the 25-point hole. The result was a performance for the ages: the rotational back caught an all-time best 14 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown. He also converted a crucial two point conversion and added six rushes for 29 yards and two scores – the second of which the game winner in overtime.
As well as White played on the game’s biggest stage and over the last three years, the 2018 season could very well end up being his best to date. For his head coach, this does not come as a surprise. “He works very hard in the offseason,” Belichick said. “He works hard in season, works hard off the field, on the field, knows what his assignments or responsibilities are and does his very best to carry them out. You can’t ask for any more than that.”
White’s off-field work has paid off dividends and helped him grow his on-field role significantly this season. With New England experiencing noticeable turnover at the wide receiver position, quarterback Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels regularly turned to the versatile running back to make plays over the Patriots’ first seven games of 2018 – and so far he has delivered no matter the situation or the opponent.
Overall, White has been on the field for 53.8% of New England’s offensive snaps so far – a noticeable increase form the 32.6% he averaged as a more traditional change of pace back over the last three years – and has touched the football on 85 occasions: he has been handed the ball as a runner 40 times, gaining 189 yards in the process and scoring a touchdown. The majority of his production, however, has come in the passing game.
The Patriots’ leading receiver in terms of catches has 45 passes for 380 yards and – already a career-high – six scores on his stat sheet. Adding those numbers up over a full 16-game season would put White in historic territory once again: not only is he one pace to finish the season with 103 receptions which would set an all-time high for a running back, at this rate he will also smash the post-merger record of nine touchdown catches by ending up with 14.
While a lot will happen between now and the end of the regular season, one thing we already know – at least according to his coaches: how White turned from a day three draft selection into one of the most dependable running backs in the NFL. “He’s always been a very hard worker, a very diligent guy, knows his assignments very, very well,” Belichick said about him. “Has an ability to think really far ahead of what problems could occur on certain fronts or looks or what have you. He does a great job of that.”
“[He] asks questions like a coach would ask them,” Belichick also noted. When asked what exactly he meant by that, the head coach started to explain. “If you were talking to another coach about a play, the coach would think ahead to what are the problems that could come up on this,” Belichick said. “If they do this, if they do that, if they do something else, what if this guy lines up here instead of there?”
“It’s not just, ‘What’s my assignment?’” continued the Patriots’ head coach. “It’s ‘Okay, well, what if these other things happen? How do we handle it? Are we going to switch it? Are we going to stay with it? Can I make this call? Can I make that call?’ I think when you talk to a coach about a play that’s the way a coach looks at it. He sees the whole play, sees all the issues.” According to Belichick, White analyzes plays the same way – as do players like Tom Brady, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, and Dont’a Hightower.
Comparing the first-year team captain to some of the best players the Patriots and the NFL have to offer is no exaggeration on the coach’s part but rather an acknowledgement of White’s development over the years. “As he’s gained more experience he just knows more and is able to continue to push ahead,” Belichick said. “As [players] learn more and experience more, they’re able to process more and do more – and James has done that.”
Josh McDaniels agrees with his head coach. “James offers you a lot of flexibility because one, he’s worked hard to make himself a good player, and two, he is always well-prepared for the games and allows you to do whatever you’d like to do with him if you think it can help us have success,” said the Patriots’ offensive coordinator who has worked with White since he joined the team as a rookie in 2014.
This work ethic and the associated willingness to keep improving helped turn White into a mismatch machine for New England. No matter if he lines up in the backfield, the slot, or split out wide, he has given the coaching staff the confidence to be used on a regular basis and in multiple roles – which is exactly what Belichick, McDaniels and company have done. His productivity in 2018 is the best example for this.