With the third phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September 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 bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with running back James White.
Name: James White
Position: Running back
Jersey number: 28
Opening day age: 29
Size: 5-foot-9, 205 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 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 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.
What is his projected role? Even though his production decreased a bit in 2020, White continues to be one of the better role-specific running backs in all of football. He will therefore be used on all three downs once again in 2021. Serving primarily in the passing game, on third downs, and in up-tempo situations such as two-minute drills, the 29-year-old is projected to be on the field for roughly 35 to 50 percent 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 has also seen some action in the kicking game from time to time. In 2020, however, he was on the field for only 13 of a possible 399 special teams snaps (3.3%): White served exclusively on kick return units but did not register any statistics. In total, he has run back four kickoffs for 69 yards over the course of his career.
Does he have positional versatility? Despite being listed as a running back White has gained comparatively few yards on the ground throughout his career. That said, 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 the lone career passing attempt during the 2019 season, and has proven himself capable of lining up all over the offensive formation.
What is his salary cap situation? One week into unrestricted free agency, White decided to return to New England on a one-year contract worth up to $2.46 million. While the deal does include a fully guaranteed $2.32 million salary, $1.25 million of it are classified as a benefit, according to Miguel Benzan, and therefore not counting against the cap. White’s salary cap number for the 2021 season is therefore a modest $1.21 million — just the 39th highest on the team at the moment.
What is his roster outlook? White returned on a relatively cheap contract this offseason and is not getting any younger, but he should still be considered a lock to make the roster. Not only has he proven himself a productive member of the New England offense and an experienced playmaker, he also is a team captain and respected leader in a locker room with plenty of new faces in it. While his long-term future remains uncertain, White will be an integral part of the Patriots’ 2021 attack.