The value running back James White brings to the New England Patriots’ offense is no secret, even if it feels that way sometimes.
A player who’s been so underrated for so long oftentimes veers the other way, into the category of an overrated player, yet White continues to fly under the radar when it comes to Tom Brady’s weaponry.
Last Thursday vs. the Indianapolis Colts marked the first time since Week 11 of the 2016 regular season that Brady had both Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski at his disposal in a game that counted in the standings. The Colts are terrible, but it’s no accident Brady threw for a season-high 341 passing yards with his offense at full strength.
White is every bit as integral to a high-octane New England offense as Edelman and Gronkowski and deserves to be mentioned as such. He led the Patriots in catches (10), targets (14) and receiving yards (77) against Indy, just as he did against the Dolphins the week before and the Jaguars two weeks before that. White been Brady’s most-targeted receiver in four of five games overall this season, even if he’s technically a running back.
“I mean, for me, I always feel like I’m involved whether I touch the ball or not,” White said. “Like I said, one week it may be catching, one week it may be running, one week it may just be blocking. I think everybody across the board in our offense does a great job of accepting their role no matter how many touches they get.”
White doesn’t do much actual rushing of the ball these days, even with a paper-thin depth chart in the backfield in Foxboro.
Pass catching backs are nothing new when it comes to Brady’s favorite targets, going back to Kevin Faulk’s heyday and continuing through Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and Dion Lewis. Perhaps none ever developed a rapport with Brady the same way White has, without whom there’s no t-shirts, flags, memes and everything else commemorating 28-3.
White’s currently second in the NFL in catches among running backs, with 32 through five games. Need a first down? White has the Patriots covered there, too, where he’s tied for the league lead among backs with 14 catches good enough for a first down – the same number as Gronkowski.
“He’s got to start sharing,” Gronkowski joked at the podium on Wednesday.
“No, it’s well-deserved. The way that he focuses on his detail, on the route, the way he knows how to get open and just the little tiny details he knows how to do exactly on point to get open. He’s just a great player and he does it week in and week out, one practice to the next practice. He’s a great example for our team, he’s a great player and he just deserves everything he’s been getting.”
When the Patriots drafted White in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, there’s little chance the team knew just what it had in the native of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
White took some interesting steps to making himself a more complete back in the NFL, but he was a workhouse – a very effective one at that – in Wisconsin’s backfield, carrying the ball 221 times his senior year for 1,444 yards. He never carried the ball fewer than 125 in any of his college seasons…and through Week 5 of his fifth season in the NFL, has just 136 career pro carries in the regular season.
“I’ve always felt confident in my pass-catching abilities even though I didn't do it as much in college,” White said. “I did it in high school and even during the offseason and stuff, I would run routes with the receivers and just try to learn what they can do because I always felt confident in my ability to do that. We ran a lot of screens in college though so I always felt comfortable and confident with that. Obviously, I didn’t think I would be catching as many passes as I do but I mean, things change and I’ve accepted my role and just go out there and execute to the best of my abilities.”
Amazingly, the 5-0 Kansas City Chiefs have the NFL’s worst defense in terms of yards allowed (461.8) per game and is second-to-last passing yards (343).
Sunday’s opponent for the Patriots has been bad in pretty much all phases defensively, giving up the most receiving yards to running backs in the NFL on the season and is tied for the second-most receptions allowed.
It should be music to White’s ears, even if he’s taking the high road.
“The stats don’t necessarily mean anything,” White said. “Like I said, they’ll let you drive the ball all the way down the field and force a turnover in the red zone. They do a good job of capitalizing on their opponent’s mistakes so it would be a great week for us to not turn the ball over, string drives together, just work together as an offense as a whole.”
The offense as a whole is still Super Bowl-caliber. But the offense is only whole when White is front and center, right alongside Gronkowski and Edelman.