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2021 NFL free agency: James White becomes latest team leader to be re-signed by Patriots

Related: James White set to return to Patriots via one-year, $2.5 million deal

Arizona Cardinals v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Heading into Wednesday, the New England Patriots had re-signed just seven of their 22 unrestricted free agents. Among those still left unaccounted for was veteran running back and long-time team captain James White.

Coming off the most difficult season of his career — he lost his father in a car crash in September that also left his mother critically injured — the 29-year-old was identified as a realistic candidate to leave the Patriots. His touches had decreased substantially in 2020, and New England had some solid young running backs under contract already.

That departure never happened, though. Instead, White will return to the Patriots on a fully-guaranteed one-year deal worth $2.5 million.

The former fourth-round draft pick returning to the fold may be a surprising development, but one that certainly is favorable from the Patriots’ perspective for more reason than one.

On the field, White will continue to serve as New England’s most experienced receiving back. The three-time Super Bowl winner and member of the Patriots’ Team of the 2010s had played that role ever since his emergence in 2015. And while he caught only 49 passes for 375 yards and a touchdown last season, his abilities in third-down and up-tempo situations were still apparent on a week-to-week basis.

White was one of the few consistently reliable weapons on an offense lacking receiving talent. Despite him posting his worst statistical season since 2015, he finished in the top three on the team in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

His performances were a bit inconsistent over the course of the last year — his playing time fluctuated more than in recent seasons and he also was shaky at times as a pass protector — but his value to the organization was repeatedly on display: he served as a team captain for the third year in a row and as such helped replace the leadership that was lost when veterans such as Tom Brady left the organization during the offseason.

With the team seeing additional turnover this spring, keeping White in the fold is a good move for the Patriots.

He is not the first player to fall into this category, though. New England already decided to retain strong locker room voices such as quarterback Cam Newton, center David Andrews and defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr, while also re-signing the ever-vocal Kyle Van Noy and much-respected Ted Karras. White now will also be around alongside them to help lead a roster with plenty of new faces across the board.

His leadership on top of his contributions as one of the better receiving backs in football will be key for New England’s new-look offense in 2021. The Patriots are certainly a better team with James White in the fold, both on the field and in the locker room.