Coming off a 2021 season that saw them return to the playoffs but eventually come up short on wild card weekend, the New England Patriots have a long list of to-dos this offseason. One of its items is bringing back players who are scheduled to enter free agency.
There are quite a few of them: all in all, 18 players that were with New England last year 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 16.
Name: James White
Position: Running back
Jersey number: 28
Opening day age: 30
Size: 5-foot-9, 205 pounds
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
What is his experience? White originally arrived in the NFL in 2014, as a fourth-round draft selection by the Patriots. While he did not see any noteworthy playing time during his rookie season — he was 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, registered three touchdowns as well as a two-point conversion. In total, he contributed 139 yards from scrimmage that against the Atlanta Falcons, playing a key role in New England’s comeback from a 28-3 deficit in the late third quarter.
Super Bowl LI is his signature performance and made him a household name, but White’s experience and contributions to the Patriots offense through the years extend far beyond that one game. He has 95 regular season and 12 playoff games on his résumé, has gained a combined 5,208 yards from scrimmage, and has scored 44 career touchdowns. He was also voted to New England’s Team of the 2010s and became one of the most potent and reliable backfield receivers in the entire NFL.
What did his 2021 season look like? Entering free agency for the first time in his career, White was seen as a realistic candidate to leave the Patriots — possibly to join Tom Brady in Tampa Bay. However, the depressed market due to the financial fallout of the Coronavirus pandemic eventually led to the veteran running back re-signing in New England. White returned on a one-year contract worth a total of $2.46 million, continuing to serve as a leader in the backfield and the team’s top receiving back.
As such, White saw regular action early on in the regular season. Taking the field primarily on late downs as well as in up-tempo and no-huddle situations, he participated in the Patriots’ first three games of the season and was on the field for 63 of their first 146 offensive snaps of the year (43.2%). However, that 63rd snap was the final one he would take for the remainder of the year: White suffered a hip subluxation in the second quarter of the Week 3 loss to New Orleans, and later underwent season-ending surgery.
Up until that point, he was his usual productive self. The eighth-year man had shown some early chemistry with rookie quarterback Mac Jones, catching 12 passes on 14 targets for a combined 94 yards. At the time that he went down versus the Saints, he was actually the team’s leading receiver in terms of receptions. White was less productive as a runner, though, gaining just 38 combined yards on 10 carries. He did score a 7-yard touchdown in Week 2 versus the New York Jets, however.
Besides his role as a safety blanket-type pass catcher and part-time ball-carrier, White also filled two additional roles for the Patriots in 2021. He was used as a pass protector out of the backfield, not surrendering any quarterback pressures on 13 blocking plays. He also served as one of five team captains: the former fourth-round draft pick and longest-tenured running back on New England’s roster was voted a captain for the fourth year in a row — an example of the respect he enjoyed among his teammates.
Free agency preview
What is his contract history? White signed a standard four-year rookie deal worth $2.6 million after arriving in New England in 2014. In April 2017, just ahead of the contract’s final season, he agreed to add three more years via an extension worth a total of $12 million. White entered free agency for the first time in his career last March but as noted above decided to re-sign with the Patriots. His total career earnings are estimated at around $17.8 million by Over the Cap.
Which teams might be in the running? Despite his status as one of the best receiving backs of the last decade, White will likely not cash in big in free agency. His age, injury-shortened 2021 season and the recent running back devaluation all work against him. That said, multiple teams could use a veteran like him. The Houston Texans and Las Vegas Raiders might be teams to watch, given that both of them are run by former New England executives. The Arizona Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers also might be interested.
Why should he be expected back? With Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson both under contract, the Patriots are set at the early-down position. However, they lack a proven receiving option from the backfield. White, of course, has been as reliable a player as any in the NFL in this department since his emergence in 2015. Keeping him would therefore be in the team’s best interest and give Mac Jones a trustworthy safety blanket out of the backfield. White’s leadership also cannot be left out of the discussion.
Why should he be expected to leave? White is on the wrong side of 30 and coming off a season-ending injury, which might lead the Patriots to look elsewhere to find a receiving back. The veteran himself also might be interested in a change of scenery after the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic impact basically robbed him of the opportunity to go through free agency last year. Add the fact that he might want to be closer to his Florida-based family, especially after his father was killed in a car crash in 2020, and there are multiple reasons why he would leave the only pro football team he has ever played for.
What is his projected free agency outcome? White is entering this year’s free agency period in a different position than last year’s, which might actually increase his chances of staying put. He might still have value to the Patriots as well, who have not found a proper replacement for the 30-year-old just yet and saw last year what he can still offer. If they trust that he can keep performing at a high level, bringing him back certainly makes sense. A two-year contract worth around $5 million in total would be fair for both sides.
Will the Patriots re-sign James White?
This poll is closed