With the offseason workout program in the rear-view mirror, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 87 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early 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 men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with veteran running back James White.
Name: James White
Position: Running back
Jersey number: 28
Opening day age: 30
Size: 5-foot-9, 205 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
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.
What is his projected role? Even though he is coming off a major injury and is already on the wrong side of 30, the Patriots re-signing White in free agency shows that they believe he can still have value as a role-specific member of their running back corps. Realistically, he will be used primarily in the passing game in 2022, and see most of his snaps on third downs and in up-tempo situations. If back to his old self, White will be on the field for roughly 35 to 50 percent of New England’s offensive snaps any given week and see regular touches as a key member of the team’s aerial attack.
Does he have positional versatility? Despite being listed as a running back, most of White’s production through his career has come as a receiver — either out of the backfield or split out wide. 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 ball, though: White has also completed the lone career passing attempt during the 2019 season, and has some theoretical value as a kickoff returner as well.
What is his special teams value? White has seen some kicking game snaps from time to time throughout his career, but was given only sporadic opportunities as of late. His last full season in 2020 saw him take the field for only 13 of a possible 399 special teams snaps (3.3%). That number would certainly not have gone up had he stayed healthy in 2021: White was on the field for just one special teams snap before his season-ending hip injury. He has been used on the kickoff return unit in the past and has even run back four kicks for 69 yards. However, his special teams value at this point in his career is virtually non-existent.
What is his salary cap situation? Earlier this offseason, the Patriots retained White on a two-year, $5 million contract. The deal itself is a team-friendly one, with his salary cap number for the 2022 season standing at just $1.52 million. It includes a partially-guaranteed $1.16 million base salary, active roster bonuses of $70,000 per game — most of them classified as not likely to be earned — and $75,000 each offseason workout bonus and roster bonus due on August 1. The pact does not include a signing bonus; its only guarantee is a $500,000 portion of the salary.
How safe is his roster spot? White’s new contract with the Patriots can be seen as a “prove it” deal, and his status and the roster is a reflection of that. He is no surefire lock to make the 53 like some of his teammates, but the odds work in his favor if his recovery is going well. Of course, that process could have major implications on his outlook heading towards the season: after only playing a comparatively passive role in organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, White appears to be a candidate to open training camp and maybe even the regular season on the physically unable to perform list (PUP).
One-sentence projection: The Patriots will not rush White back after missing most on the 2021 season, meaning that the team captain might see some decreased playing time early during the season — if he even opens it on the 53-man roster rather than PUP.