Perry: How Rare Athlete Keion White Can Be Deployed in Pats' Defense

Perry: How rare athlete Keion White can be deployed in Pats' defense originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Keion White had a one-of-a-kind back-and-forth with reporters soon after he heard his name called by the Patriots in the second round of this year's NFL Draft.

Real estate. Investments. Living "financially free."

These aren't your standard draft-day talking points for Bill Belichick's rookies. But White -- an edge defender taken No. 46 overall of Georgia Tech -- isn't your standard Belichick draft pick. And he was willing to discuss things most media-averse New England newcomers are not.

Without hesitation.

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"I have to assess the numbers of where I stand contract-wise and then go from there," White said when asked about his interest in acquiring property. "But definitely the goal is to be financially free. I feel like I use that to play football better. So the more financially free I can be, the better I can play football, because I’m not really worried about what will happen to get to the next contract or whatever. I can just go play free and run around on the field."

White's business aspirations aren't the only thing that make him a unique specimen in Foxboro. He has physical traits few in recent draft history can match. 

Hard-to-find features

White checked into this year's NFL Scouting Combine at 6-foot-5, 285 pounds and blew away evaluators when he ran his 40-yard dash in under 4.8 seconds at his pro day. One AFC scout had White as having run a 4.72-second 40, which at White's size is eye-popping. For reference, that time was more than a tenth of a second faster than the 40 run by Chandler Jones back in 2012 (4.87 seconds), and Jones was 20 pounds lighter than White is now.

White played at over 290 pounds at times last fall for the Yellow Jackets, but you wouldn't know it just by looking at him, one AFC defensive line coach told NBC Sports Boston.

"This guy is jacked," the assistant said. "Long arms. Good long speed. Good motor and finish. Really smart. He's on the ground a little more than you would like. His turning, his balance, his change of direction is just OK. But smart, powerful, fast. A 4.72 at 281 (pro-day weigh-in)? That's pretty legit."

It's also pretty rare.

According to Kent Lee Platte's Relative Athletic Score -- a measurement of a player's movement skills based on their size and pre-draft athletic test scores -- White's combination of height, weight and explosiveness gave him an elite score of 9.54 out of 10.0. That was fifth-highest among defensive ends in this year's draft class, behind Jets first-rounder Will McDonald from Iowa State (9.66), but ahead of Packers first-rounder Lucas Van Ness from Iowa (9.39) and Eagles first-rounder Nolan Smith from Georgia (9.23).

During Belichick's tenure as head coach in New England, only seven of his first and second-round picks had better Relative Athletic Scores than White. His score as an edge defender -- that number shifts to a whopping 9.92 if considering him a defensive tackle -- matches the RAS of one of the best pound-for-pound athletes on the roster: safety Kyle Dugger. 

'What's the story on this guy?'

Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, a former Patriots scout under Belichick, said that White's speed and instincts jumped off the screen well before he was eligible to play in the Mobile, Ala. All-Star Game. While scouting Old Dominion's Oshane Ximines in 2019, Nagy explained, an underclassman caught his eye.

"This other young guy just kept popping, flashing on the tape," Nagy said. "I'm watching with our scouting assistants, and I'll usually throw questions out at those guys as we watch the tape. I'm like, 'Guys, who is this dude?' They looked up his number and he was only like a redshirt freshman or something at the time, or a sophomore, and it was Keion. They read me the bio, and I'm like, 'What's the story on this guy?'"

White was in his first collegiate season as a defensive player. He'd played two years at tight end for Old Dominion. And yet somehow he'd figured out a way to rack up 19 tackles for loss in his first crack on the defensive side of the ball.

"I think he was one of the top two or three guys in the country that year in TFLs as a first year defensive player," Nagy said. "So what does that tell you? Tells you he can find the football, that's for sure. And it tells you he's got disruptive ability behind the line of scrimmage without even looking at the tape. You can see that on paper and figure that part out. 

"Now you fast forward this year and we kind of zeroed in on (Keion) and all year... I don't know what the plan would be (for the Patriots), but you know, he could be a jumbo outside linebacker."

White transferred from Old Dominion to Georgia Tech after ODU canceled its 2020 season due to COVID. It wasn't long thereafter that he turned himself into a bit of an analytics darling as one of the most productive pass-rushers in college football. 

Per Pro Football Focus, White had a pass-rush win rate of 19.6 percent in 2023. That matched the win rate of Alabama's Will Anderson, who was widely considered the top defensive player in the draft class and taken with the third overall pick by the Texans. With 1.1 tackles for loss per game, per Sports Info Solutions, White ranked among the top-12 edge defenders in the nation, just behind Anderson (1.3) and Texas Tech's Tyree Wilson (1.4), who was taken by the Raiders at No. 7 overall.

Belichick's new Mr. Versatility

In recent seasons, since Matt Patricia left New England the first time to take over the Lions, Belichick has preferred a defensive front more in the mold of a traditional 3-4 alignment. Of course in today's NFL, few teams -- the Patriots included -- play with a true front-seven. But Belichick likes big-bodied defensive tackles as well as versatile outside linebackers who can function in a variety of roles.

White potentially could play as a massive outside linebacker for Belichick since there's evidence that suggests he has the tools to be able to play on all three downs, as outside 'backer Matthew Judon does at 261 pounds. White could set an edge in the run game, get after quarterbacks as a high-effort rusher, and even occasionally drop into coverage.

Though he weighs as much as some modern-day pass-rushing defensive tackles, White has flashed an ability to run stride-for-stride with players much smaller than him down the field in coverage.

"You're talking about a big man that can really run," Nagy went on. "And they moved him up and down the front there at Georgia Tech. I think you can reduce him inside to get some pass rush out of him, which we did at Senior Bowl a bunch. 

"And the thing that I like most about him is, you know, it's hard to win quick in the NFL like you can in college. I mean, you really have to be skilled as a pass rusher. You've got to be really fast. You've got to be powerful, but you're going to get stuck. That initial rush is going to get cut off and sometimes you'll die in it. Some guys die in it, and some guys stay alive and transition to his second or third move and get some extra-effort pressure. And that's what Keion does really well."

What makes the White selection a classic Patriots pick is that Belichick and his staff will be able to adjust his role to the situation they're in. He's smart enough to handle a variety of responsibilities -- something Rob Ninkovich told Next Pats is absolutely vital on the edge in Belichick's defense -- and he's athletic enough to chip in from multiple alignments. 

The AFC defensive line coach who studied White's game prior to the draft suggested that the rookie's best fit in Foxboro would be in a role similar to the one that has been occupied by Deatrich Wise Jr. the last few seasons.

"I would think he pushes Wise for playing time," the assistant said. "He could kick inside and play next to (Christian) Barmore on passing downs when (Josh) Uche comes on the field. He gives them some flexibility. He has real straight-line speed. I'd say he has more juice than Wise, but Wise is probably stouter in the run game. He'll be good in that New England system where they can move him around."

Wired for Foxboro

The New England system is one that Belichick has readily described in the past as a difficult one to work in. But White appears to have the kind of attitude that could make him a seamless fit at One Patriot Place. 

Prior to being drafted, the 24-year-old (he spent six years in college with one red-shirt year and one COVID-canceled season behind him) carried himself as someone who took his work as a football player seriously. It's my understanding that approach meant he didn't always get along with teammates. White didn't have much in the way of tolerance for players who wanted to "[expletive] around" and he could be "combative" at times, one evaluator said.

That didn't seem to bother the Patriots or their head coach, who has fostered a culture that values professionalism. Add that particular adjective to White's scouting report alongside the description of his rare physical gifts and angry playing demeanor, and it should come as no surprise that he was in consideration for Belichick in the first round.

I was told that if first-round corner Christian Gonzalez had come off the board prior to the Patriots taking him at No. 17, White would have been in the mix as Belichick's first pick.

Perry: Gonzalez pick is a sign of Belichick's evolving draft strategy

The Patriots ended up swiping White in the second round, at No. 46 overall, and what quickly followed was a viral moment of a man apparently not reacting at all to the biggest moment of his sports life.

Though the video that made the rounds on social media wasn't White's real-time reaction -- he did have a more emotional response when initially absorbing the news he'd been taken by the Patriots -- it was indicative of White's personality. He said as much after the fact.

"I don't know if you all have seen on TV, but I'm a pretty chill person," White said. "I'm not very explosive in excitement in any form."

But he's explosive athletically. And big. And smart. And versatile. And a businessman.

Time now for him to try to make good on his new employer's Day 2 investment.

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