The New England Patriots’ atypically active free agency continued on Wednesday when news broke that they intend to re-sign longtime running back James White.
Since being chosen in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, White has been among the league’s premier pass-catching specialists out of the backfield and a member of three Super Bowl-winning teams in New England.
As head coach Bill Belichick continues to light up the NFL transaction wire, what might he be plotting next?
James White returns to deep New England Patriots backfield
ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler initially reported on White’s impending return to the Patriots for an eighth season, with Adam Schefter adding that it’s a one-year, $2.5 million contract for White that’s fully guaranteed.
White was a frequent go-to option for legendary quarterback Tom Brady, but New England had to adjust its offense last season when TB12 left to win a championship in Tampa Bay. White’s role also diminished due to the emergence of sophomore back Damien Harris, and a former first-round pick Sony Michel also got touches.
Harris and Michel are still in the fold for New England, and signal-caller Cam Newton is returning in 2021 as the presumptive starter under center. Newton posted an impressive 12 rushing touchdowns in his maiden year with the Pats, so there’s no shortage of firepower from the rushing attack.
New England Patriots’ free-agent additions should benefit James White
As loaded as the backfield already is, re-signing White might’ve seemed redundant on the surface. However, he’s easily the eldest among those who figure to see significant touches, and has an intimate knowledge of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ system and how to be most productive in it.
The fact that White saw his catch total drop from 72 in 2019 to 49 this last year is more a function of transitioning from Brady to Newton at QB and the COVID-19 pandemic severely limited the offseason schedule. New England also lacked serious skill position talent at receiver and tight end, which limited the space White was accustomed to having underneath.
That won’t be a problem in 2021, or so it seems. Belichick was extremely aggressive at adding playmaking pass-catchers, signing tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith along with wideouts Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.
Not only is that going to position Newton much more ideally for success, but it’ll also give him much easier throws and greater space for White to work with. Smith and Henry are going to offer so much versatility to the offense and leave opposing defenses confused as to when it’ll be a run or pass play. White can flex into various formations and draw favorable matchups that he can exploit.
What will the New England Patriots do next?
It seems unfathomable that New England could make any other moves, but who’s to say Belichick doesn’t have something more up his sleeve?
Because Belichick spent money to build depth on defense as well, though, it seems more likely that the Pats’ next big splash might occur in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Newton wasn’t guaranteed to return as the starting quarterback in 2021 entering the offseason, and even though he’s re-signed, that doesn’t mean Belichick won’t bring in someone to legitimately compete with him.
Looking at the Patriots’ depth chart, they don’t really have many holes remaining. No serious big-ticket wide receivers are left in free agency, so that leaves the quarterback spot as the only obvious area to address.
The biggest name out there is reigning Comeback Player of the Year Alex Smith, whose skill set fits what New England likes to do in the passing game. That wouldn’t exactly inspire the fanbase.
No, it feels like something bigger is coming from Belichick. With a retooled roster full of veterans who fit his Patriot Way, Belichick has set himself up to afford a draft day trade up from the 15th overall pick and much nearer to the top of the order to select his new quarterback of the future, such as Justin Fields or Trey Lance.
Mac Jones has also been linked to the Patriots, and is expected to be drafted lower than Fields or Lance. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. had the Alabama field general going to New England at No. 15 in his latest mock draft, which is precisely the case in Sportsnaut’s own.
There’s no guarantee Jones will fall that far, though, so look for Belichick to try to leap ahead of the Carolina Panthers, who pick eighth overall, since Jones practiced well with Carolina at the Senior Bowl and is rumored to be coveted by the Panthers.