The New England Patriots made a number of exciting additions to the Foxboro fold for 2021. Between free agency, to the NFL draft, the Pats will have no shortage of new faces on the field this season.
However, something can be said for the return of a fan favorite, especially one who happens to be pretty good on the field.
For most Patriots fans, James White’s return to New England was a pleasant surprise. The 29-year-old running back reportedly explored "a few" options in free agency. In fact, it had been widely speculated that White might find more appealing playing options outside of New England, including a reunion with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski in Tampa Bay.
But the three-time Patriots team captain once again will call New England his football home, for at least one more season.
Make no mistake about it, the Patriots offense will be much better for it.
A Three-Down Threat
Since being drafted by the Patriots in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft, White has become one of the most beloved and revered players in team history. While quite adept at running the football, White’s prowess is primarily linked to his ability to catch passes. During his six seasons in New England, he has amassed 369 receptions, 3,184 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns. He also has rushed for 1,240 career yards, with 10 rushing touchdowns.
White’s production dipped a bit during the 2020 season. While the Patriots offense struggled as a whole throughout the year, he gained just 375 yards receiving, with only one touchdown reception in 14 games.
While he had been one of Tom Brady’s most frequently used receivers, White was targeted only 62 times in 2020, his lowest total since 2015. By comparison, White was targeted 95 times in 2019 and 123 times in 2018. Of course, it should be mentioned that White was working with a new quarterback last season in Cam Newton. Regardless of the prowess of any new signal-caller, there will be a period of growing pains as offensive players develop on-field chemistry.
However, it should be noted that White is still revered as one of the best pass-catching backs in the NFL. When he is deployed out of the backfield, his route tree closely resembles that of a wide receiver. His ability to run nearly every conceivable route makes him someone for which the defense needs to be accountable. This often led to White finding himself being covered by a defensive back, or even double covered.
In 2020, the Patriots lacked the presence of reliable, prolific pass catchers. As such, teams could dedicate a resource to covering White, thus neutralizing his ability to advance the ball and convert on key third-down situations. In 2021, the Patriots seem intent on reversing this trend. With the addition of tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, as well as receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, White should see more open looks in 2021. Their opponents no longer will have the luxury of isolating him in hopes of bringing their offense to a standstill.
With a likely increase in targets, White should return to his more traditional role of being a three-down, key component in the Patriots offense.
All Roads Lead to Foxboro
Though some other destinations may have been appealing, White ultimately opted for the familiarity of Foxboro, Massachusetts. Historically speaking, White is also one of the more highly decorated all-time New England Patriots. He is a three-time Super Bowl champion with the Pats; his most memorable postseason run coming in 2016 when he scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime of Super Bowl LI. He also was named a member of the Patriots All-Dynasty Team. White recently was asked about re-signing with the Patriots via teleconference.
“It’s good to be back," he said. "Familiar faces and guys that I know — get back in the locker room with these guys, bounce back and be better than what we did last year and improve from it.”
“I’m just familiar with everybody. They always put me in a position to succeed and being back around these guys in the locker room, we have a great group of guys who have helped me shape the person and the player who I am today — the coaches and the players. So, it was only right to come back and compete.”
White will be joined in the New England backfield by Damien Harris, Sony Michel, Brandon Bolden, J.J. Taylor, Tyler Gaffney and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson. The chances to lead his team on the field, as well as off it, continue to make him one of the most valuable pieces of the Patriots roster.
Intent on making the most of those chances, White seems poised for a strong return to prominence this season.