Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s backfield.
Name: James White
Position: Running back
Jersey number: 28
Opening day age: 28
Size: 5-foot-9, 205 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2020 (2021 UFA)
What is his experience? White originally arrived in the NFL as a fourth-round selection by the Patriots in the 2014 draft. While he did not see any significant playing time during his rookie season as a depth option behind Shane Vereen, his role started to expand in his second year and with Vereen having left New England in free agency. After sharing pass-catching/change-of-pace duties with Dion Lewis in 2015, White established himself as the team’s top third down and receiving back by the 2016 season.
While a limited thread as a ball carrier, White proved his value time and again during the Patriots’ Super Bowl run that year and had an especially impressive performance in the title game: he set a new Super Bowl record for points scored by finding the end zone a combined four times, and registered three touchdowns as well as a two-point conversion — all while contributing 139 yards from scrimmage during New England’s historic comeback from a 28-3 deficit in the late third quarter.
While Super Bowl 51 stands as his signature performance, White’s experience and overall contributions to the Patriots offense through the years extend far beyond that one game: he has 78 regular season and 12 playoff games on his résumé, has gained a combined 4,580 yards from scrimmage, and has scored 40 career touchdowns. Along the way, he established himself as one of the most potent and reliable backfield receivers in the entire NFL.
What did his 2019 season look like? Coming off the most productive season of his career — one during which he registered 1,354 scrimmage yards in 19 games and scored 12 touchdowns — White continued to play a pivotal role within New England’s offense in 2019. He once again served as the team’s number one receiving back, and was therefore heavily used in up-tempo and no-huddle situations, while proving himself one of the few consistently reliable receiving weapons in the team’s offensive arsenal.
As such and even though his numbers declined compared to his impressive 2018 season, White had another statistically impressive campaign: he caught 72 of the 90 passes thrown his way during the regular season, for a combined 645 yards and five touchdowns — ranking second on the team behind only wide receiver Julian Edelman in all three categories. Furthermore, he added 263 yards as well as another score on 67 carries. White’s impact on the 2019 Patriots reached beyond his 908 yards from scrimmage, though.
Not only did he also add 35 yards on his lone passing attempt of the season (Week 14 against the Kansas City Chiefs), find the end zone on a two-point rushing attempt (Week 11 against the Philadelphia Eagles), and add 41 yards on two kickoff returns, he also served as a leader within the Patriots’ locker room: for the second year in a row, White was voted a captain by his teammates and recognized for his role as not just one of the most experienced but also most productive players on the offensive side of the ball.
This productivity was on full display throughout the season — most prominently during New England’s Week 13 loss against the Houston Texans, when White registered 177 yards from scrimmage and scored two touchdowns. It did only somewhat extend to the playoffs, however: during the Patriots’ lone postseason contest, White finished with five receptions for a combined 62 yards while also adding one 14-yard run. That said, his 76 total yards did make him the team’s most productive offensive weapon that day.
In general, White proved himself a core member of New England’s offensive attack once again due to his production and also his durability: he missed just one game all season when he was excused in Week 3 for the birth of his child, and was on the field for a combined 519 of a possible 1,210 offensive snaps (42.9%). With other receiving options unable to rise to the occasion and take some pressure off him and Julian Edelman, however, the sixth-year man was at times held in check as a focal point of defensive efforts.
What is his projected role? White continues to be one of the best role-specific running backs in all of football and will therefore be used on all three downs once again in 2020. Serving primarily in the passing game, on third downs, and in up-tempo situations such as two-minute drills, the 28-year-old is projected to be on the field for 35-50% of the Patriots’ offensive snaps any given week and register regular touches as a key member of the club’s aerial attack.
What is his special teams value? White’s value lies primarily in his contributions on the offensive side of the ball, but he also sees regular action in the kicking game. In 2019, for example, he was on the field for a combined 55 of a possible 474 special teams snaps (11.6%): White served exclusively on kick return units — running back two kickoffs himself — and was used as the right-side up-back on the majority of his snaps.
Does he have positional versatility? Even though White has gained comparatively few yards on the ground given his running back label, he has shown the ability to successfully carry the football when asked to do so. His versatility extends beyond catching and running the football, though: White has also completed his lone career passing attempt just last season, and has proven himself capable of lining up all over the offensive formation.
What is his salary cap situation? White is entering the final season of the three-year, $12 million contract extension he signed with the Patriots in 2017, and will be on the team’s books with a salary cap hit of $4.59 million. Even though the team could create net savings of around $2.79 million — his gross savings minus another player taking his spot on the top-51 — by releasing or trading the veteran, such a move is highly unlikely: White is too valuable to the operation and as such a candidate for an extension before anything else.
What is his roster outlook? Entering the 2020 season, White is a lock to make the Patriots’ roster due to his role and proven productivity in combination with his leadership and experience. His usage, however, will very much depend on the offense that coordinator Josh McDaniels will construct around projected new starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Seeing White play a major role in it as a safety blanket receiver out of the backfield would not be a surprise, though, which is why he should again be expected to be among the team-leaders in touches and yards from scrimmage.