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Patriots 2021 free agency profile: Will James White return to New England for an eighth season?

Related: Patriots free agency profile: G Joe Thuney

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

Coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign, the New England Patriots are headed into a pivotal offseason: they need to rebuild a roster that went just 7-9 last year and is in need of some major upgrades across the board. Part of those could be bringing back the players scheduled to enter free agency later this month — and there are quite a few of them.

All in all, 26 players that were with New England in one way last season are in need of a new contract. Among them is running back James White, who is an unrestricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 17.

Hard facts

Name: James White

Position: Running back

Jersey number: 28

Opening day age: 29

Size: 5-foot-9, 205 pounds

Contract status: Unrestricted free agent

Experience

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 comparatively limited threat 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 92 regular season and 12 playoff games on his résumé, has gained a combined 5,076 yards from scrimmage, and has scored 43 career touchdowns. Along the way, he was voted to New England’s Team of the 2010s and established himself as one of the most potent and reliable backfield receivers in the entire NFL.

What did his 2020 season look like? Coming off another highly productive season — he registered 994 scrimmage yards in 2019 and ranked second on the team in the three major receiving categories (catches, yards, touchdowns) — White continued to play a prominent role within New England’s offense in 2020. While he did see fewer opportunities, he once again served as the team’s number one receiving and third down back, and was therefore heavily used in up-tempo and no-huddle situations.

As such, White proved himself one of the few consistently reliable weapons in the team’s struggling offensive arsenal. While his role was a bit more limited than in previous seasons — partially due to New England’s increased focus on the running game — he still finished with 49 receptions for 375 yards and a touchdown, and also added 121 yards and two scores on 35 carries. In total, he appeared in 14 of New England’s games and was on the field for 330 of a possible 1,011 offensive snaps (32.6%).

While White showed his dynamic playmaking ability again in 2020, he also was a bit more inconsistent in some areas. As noted above, his playing time fluctuated more than in recent years which led to him see his lowest playing time share since 2015. On top of it all, he also was shaky at times as a pass protector: White surrendered 10 quarterback pressures, including four sacks. For comparison, only one member of the offensive line — Jermaine Eluemunor — gave up more sacks than that.

That being said, White’s value to the organization as a whole cannot be denied. 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 in free agency, and also won the team’s Ed Block Courage Award alongside safety Devin McCourty. White furthermore showed his durability: while he dealt with a foot ailment later during the season, he did not miss any games due to medical reasons.

White did, however, sit out two games after suffering personal tragedy early during the season. Just hours before New England’s Week 2 contest in Seattle, his parents were involved in a car crash that left his father dead and his mother in critical condition. He sat out the next two games, but was back with the team leading up to its Week 4 matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs. Given those circumstances, White’s output in 2020 was nothing short of impressive despite his raw numbers decreasing compared to previous years.

Free agency preview

What is his contract history? After joining the Patriots as a fourth-round draft pick in 2014, White received a standard four-year rookie deal worth $2.6 million. In Aril 2017, just ahead of the contract’s final season, he agreed to add three years via an extension. The deal ran through 2020 and was valued at $12 million. Overall, White’s total contractual career earnings are therefore estimated at $15.3 million by Over the Cap.

Which teams might be in the running? While the running back position has lost some of its importance lately, a reliable pass catcher and experienced team leader such as White could still get plenty of attention in free agency. Teams such as the San Francisco 49ers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Pittsburgh Steelers or Tampa Bay Buccaneers might all be willing to invest in him to bolster their backfields and give their respective quarterbacks a trustworthy safety blanket.

Why should he be expected back? Ever since taking over the role as New England’s receiving and third down back in 2015, White has been as reliable a player as any on the team. With the Patriots lacking consistent weapons in the passing game at the moment, and with fellow versatile back Rex Burkhead also an unrestricted free agent (while coming off a season-ending knee injury), keeping him would be in the team’s best interest and give the next quarterback a trustworthy safety blanket out of the backfield. White’s leadership also cannot be left out.

Why should he be expected to leave? There is no telling how the car crash that killed his father and left his mother in critical condition impacted White’s perspective on the game, but it would be understandable if he wanted to be closer to his family. A home-state team like the Buccaneers could therefore offer more for him than just money — something the Patriots simply cannot give.

What is his projected free agency outcome? White will be enshrined in the Patriots Hall of Fame one day, but the chances of him finishing his career in New England appear to be lower now than they have been a year ago. Free agency is fluid, of course, but him joining the Buccaneers to reunite with Tom Brady and be closer to his ailing mom just seems like a natural match. Would the Patriots be better with him in the fold? Of course, but the circumstances may be working against the organization.