Where Will the Pats RB Land?
By: Adam Hulse
For the first time in his career, veteran running back James White is an unrestricted free agent. The former Wisconsin Badger has spent all seven of his NFL seasons with the New England Patriots where he has been a big part of their offense. Though he is a running back, he does more damage in the passing game than he does in the rushing game.
In fact, in five of his seven seasons in the league he recorded more receptions than he did carries and has a total of sixty more receptions than carries in his career. He has almost 2000 more career receiving yards than he does rushing yards and his career receiving touchdowns outnumber his career rushing touchdowns by a margin of 25 to 10.
He has great hands and runs excellent routes out of the backfield. His unique skill set makes him a major problem in coverage for opposing defenses and a reliable option for any quarterback. Let’s now take a look at five potential landing spots for James White, who will be 29 years old when entering the 2021 NFL offseason.
New England Patriots
James White has been a key contributor for this team and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would be happy to have him back for the 2021 campaign. Besides just his production on the field, White has become one of the leaders in the locker room and one of the longest tenured skill position players on the roster along with Julian Edelman.
The Patriots are currently a team with a big question mark at quarterback, but whoever they go with would benefit from having White in this offensive system that targets running backs in the passing game more than any other team. In the 2020 season the Patriots lead the NFL in running back target shares with 29 percent.
They also lead the NFL in that same statistic over the past 5 seasons combined with 28 percent. The skillset of White fits in perfectly with the style of offense that McDaniels likes to use. Also, White is the perfect complimentary piece to young running back Damien Harris, who is an effective power runner but does not contribute much at all in the passing game.
Harris only had five receptions across 10 games last season despite this system being so favorable to running backs in the passing scheme. James White seems to fit in perfectly with the Patriots, and it would make a ton of sense for them to offer him a new contract.
Tampa Bay Bucs
A situation that would make sense for James White would be joining the Bucs and reuniting with Tom Brady, who White played with for his first six seasons in the NFL. White was always one of the favorite passing targets for Brady and their chemistry contributed to many wins including Super Bowls with the Patriots.
Brady has already shown in Tampa Bay that he prefers to have some familiar faces on his offense that he is comfortable throwing to such as Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown, who the Bucs acquired for Brady this past season. James White would definitely be someone that Brady would be happy to have back.
Brady is one of the best ever at utilizing his running backs in the passing game, which is clearly the specialty of White. Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones are mediocre at best in the passing game, so White would be an instant upgrade in that role.
The Bucs are already a team that is very comfortable with using a wide variety of different personnel groupings on offense, so carving out a snap share for James White would not be all that difficult. Also, in the Bruce Arians vertical-style passing game, the short underneath routes that White would run are the ideal safety valve when things break down. Stylistically, White would be a nice upgrade to an already powerful offense and the connection to Tom Brady might be enough to get White to Tampa.
Los Angeles Rams
The Sean McVay offensive scheme is one that is primarily centered around the short passing game and also includes a wide variety of different screen plays. This offensive formula is the ideal fit for a player like James White. Passes to the flat are both a staple of the Rams offense as well as the specialty of James White.
Adding a receiving specialist at the running back position would also add another layer to this already creative offense. The Rams offense attacks defenses in a variety of different ways, but utilizing running backs in the passing game has not really been one of the weapons in their arsenal.
In the 2020 season, the committee of running backs on the team only averaged slightly above one reception per game. In fact, over the last three seasons combined the Rams have the lowest target share percentage to running backs with only 13 percent.
If McVay were to acquire James White, that number would likely increase significantly. In an offense that is so successful at scheming production against opposing defenses, a unique skill set like James White would be a dangerous addition to the McVay arsenal.
San Francisco 49ers
Similar in creativity and style to the Sean McVay offensive system with the Rams, is the Kyle Shanahan offensive system with the 49ers. Shanahan also utilizes a wide variety of screens and designed short passing routes to get the most production out of his offense.
The key difference though is that the 49ers do use their running backs regularly in the passing game. Over the last three seasons, they have the seventh-highest target share for running backs in the passing game at 22 percent.
Last season the percentage was even higher at 24 percent for the year, which ranked fifth in the NFL. Throwing to running backs is obviously a huge part of what the 49ers do offensively, which is where James White would fit right in.
Also important to mention is that Shanahan prefers to use a stable of different running backs as opposed to just one feature back. In fact, the 49ers used seven different running backs this past season and all seven of them had receptions.
Their committee approach to the running back position, paired with the commitment to utilizing their running backs in the passing game, make the 49ers offense a perfect situation to maximize the value that James White offers.
On the other end of the spectrum from the teams that heavily use running backs in the passing game like the Patriots and 49ers, are teams like the Titans who don’t. The main reason for this is the extremely high snap percentage of superstar running back Derrick Henry. Though he is one of the best rushers in all of football, Henry is not much of a receiver at all.
This past season, Henry had a monstrous 378 carries and only 19 receptions. The high snap share for Henry coupled with his ineffectiveness in the passing game resulted in the Titans having one of the lowest target share percentages for running backs at just 12 percent.
Over the last three seasons combined, the Titans are the third lowest in the NFL in that same statistic with just 15 percent. This is clearly a part of the Titans offense that could use improvement. James White would be the right guy for that job.
White would bring some versatility to the running back position that the Titans are currently missing. Also, slightly lowering the snap share percentage of Henry could increase his overall efficiency as well as benefit his longevity. Adding a piece like James White and his talent in the passing game could bring this Titans offense to another level.