Patriots

Curran: It's a 3-Horse Race to Become the Patriots' Third-Down Back

Curran: It’s a three-horse race to become the Patriots' third-down back originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

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When we roll through things the Patriots offense "needs" so it can re-establish itself as a threat to get to 24 points, the focus often falls on the outside guys.

Wideouts. Tight ends. Who will emerge from the flock of Kendrick Bourne, Juju Smith-Schuster, DeVante Parker and Tyquan Thornton? How much production can the Patriots get from the duo of Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki?

A sometimes overlooked part of the Patriots offense that’s fallen into dormancy is the threat of a sub-back who can create mismatches. The way James White did.

Part of the reason for that is the versatility and capability of Rhamondre Stevenson, who caught 69 of the 88 balls sent his way last year, in addition to carrying 210 times for 1,040 yards. Thirty-six percent of the offensive production came from Stevenson and 36 percent of the plays went to him, including carries and targets.

Curran: James White says Mac Jones has plenty to prove in 2023

The Patriots didn’t plan on putting all that work on Stevenson. But injuries to Ty Montgomery in the preseason and then the opener put his season on ice. And Stevenson produced.

Count White as one who thinks the load on Stevenson will be lessened this year.

"Obviously, there was a lot thrown on Mondre’s plate last season," White said last week on our Patriots Talk Podcast. "I don't think he was necessarily expecting to be playing 80, 90 percent of the snaps most of the games. But he got better and better as the year went on …

"I think it would help a little bit if they can find a guy who can carve out that niche to be the third-down back/sub back whether it's Ty Montgomery, whether it's (second-year player) Pierre Strong, whether it’s (free agent acquisition) James Robinson, you could find a guy who would kind of be a mismatch and a guy who other defenses and coaches have to game-plan for. I think that that would bode well for the offense because obviously the defense has to adjust for whatever running back may be in the game."

Patriots Talk: James White on advice for Mac Jones, the Patriots’ need for a third-down back and MORE! | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Former running backs coach Ivan Fears recently mentioned Montgomery as a likely load-reducer for Stevenson when talking with Nick "Fitzy" Stevens on his “6 Rings and Football Things” podcast.

White also believes Montgomery will be the guy "to start it off" but adds, "I'm sure they want Pierre Strong to kind of turn into that guy."

White’s reasoning on the 5-foot-11, 205 pounder from South Dakota State?

“He's an explosive player. He had the fastest time for a running back at the combine last year (4.37 40). And he's well-coached. He's pretty reserved like myself," White said. "So I'm sure he took a lot of the coaching last year, had a kind of similar rookie season to myself. He didn't play too much. He had a few games. Probably played more than I did (my rookie year).

"So I think he'll come into this year with a lot of confidence. You learn a lot in your rookie season, from play-calling to routes to pass protection. There’s a lot thrown at you. It’s the longest year of your life."

While it’s fine to hold out hope Montgomery can make a contribution, he’s caught 35 passes total since 2019. That was a month’s work for White when he was the Patriots' third-down back. Montgomery, 30, has played in just 21 games over the past three years. He’s talented but hard to bank on.

Strong was hugely productive as a ball-carrier in college but caught just 42 passes his final two years at South Dakota State.

Robinson, who’s still just 24, is an under-the-radar candidate who could surprise. He caught 80 balls in his first two seasons with Jacksonville. A look at his highlight reel shows he’s a natural pass-catcher and physical runner who could ably spell Stevenson on third downs.

The chore, White says, is establishing the coaching staff’s trust and a rapport with Mac Jones. And this is when it begins.  

"I think (offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien) is a guy who kind of started this whole thing with the third-down running back so I think he'll work with them and I'm sure he'll work with all the guys to figure out which guy can kind of be in that role."

As it relates to Strong, White said, "You have to find ways to improve and show that you're a guy that can help the team win. You don't want to be sitting back there watching on the sideline every single week like I had in my first year. I wanted to come out there at OTAs and kind of set a standard for myself to show the team what I could do, and hopefully it was enough so they could throw me out there on the field. …

"I had to go out there and prove it to everybody on the team," White continued. "To the coaching staff, the offensive coordinator, to Bill (Belichick), that I could be a guy who could be relied upon.

"It started with OTAs. I wanted to win every single one-on-one rep, win every single three-on-three rep. I wanted to be a guy who could catch all the passes in the two-minute drill, help the team move the ball down the field. I wanted to show my growth, that I could pass block when we put the pads on. And even still, Dion (Lewis), (LeGarrette Blount), Brandon Bolden, we had Travaris Cadet at that point. I still didn’t play until halfway through (2015) and they still didn’t throw me out there until Dion got hurt.”

Curran: O'Brien will help Patriots' offense get back to the details

White said he built a rapport with Tom Brady before the coaches believed White was ready. And that connection, White said, is vital.

"As a sub back, the chemistry between you and the quarterback is very, very important," said White. "You have to protect, first and foremost, but you’re also the outlet. I always wanted to be a viable option so I tried to find whatever windows possible to make sure there was no defender nearby. Even the year I got hurt, it felt like me and Mac were building that."

Who will build it with Jones now? That process has likely been in high gear for the past month. And it’s clear the Patriots are stressing it because it’s currently a three-horse race.  

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