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It's been a bit of a strange season for the New England Patriots. They will win "only" 10 or 11 games for the first time since the 2009 season, as a remarkable eight-year run of 12 wins or more and easy first-round byes come to an end. Especially on the offensive side of the ball, the team has not been as consistent or explosive as we're used to seeing. Whatever the reasons are, that doesn't diminish the reality of what's unfolded for this unusually beleaguered group.
But one of the constants of this team, who has developed into arguably Tom Brady's most trusted weapon, is running back James White. In a season where Tom Brady has taken a slight step back from his MVP form and Rob Gronkowski hasn't been nearly as productive as prior seasons, White's incredible run to start the 2018 season put him over the top as the Sports Hub's Patriots Player of the Year for 2018.
White caught 10 total touchdowns in his first nine games (six receiving, four rushing), catching 61 of 81 targets for 531 yards. He also rushed 60 times for 235 yards on the ground. His production has dropped off in his last six games (56.8 total yards per game, one touchdown), partially because defenses are keying on him more. But there's no discounting how much White brought to the table before his recent downturn in production. He's already broken the Patriots single-season record for receptions, as he sits at 83 and counting.
The ever-reliable White also stepped up early in the 2018 calendar year, scoring four touchdowns in the Patriots' three postseason games. He rushed seven times for 45 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl LII against the Eagles.
And of course, anyone who follows this team closely knows that White embodies the Patriots' guiding principles of hard work, dependability, unselfishness, and mental toughness. He's as respected as any player in the organization for these reasons, and in 2018 he's had the outstanding on-field performance to match this year.
Overall, it's been a remarkably productive year for White, who has had to elevate himself in the absence of Julian Edelman due to injury or suspension. He's also needed to be a more trusted target for Brady with Gronkowski not producing like he historically has in his career. And now that Josh Gordon is out of the picture in New England, it may be time for White to elevate once again.
On top of it all, it's been an up-and-down year for the 41-year-old Brady. Usually an easy choice for the player of the year for this team, No. 12 is on pace to produce just a tick below his 2017 numbers, while many other quarterbacks around the league have improved greatly in a big year for offense across the league. Who knows where this offense, and perhaps the Patriots as a whole, would be without White's contributions?
As the Pats look to secure a first-round bye and head into the AFC playoffs on a high note against the Jets on Sunday, they likely need White to be an offensive cornerstone now more than ever. That's why he closes out 2018 as the Patriots Player of the Year.
Honorable mention: We'd be remiss without mentioning cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who took another step forward in his second season in New England. He earned his second career Pro Bowl nod as one of the league's top defensive backs, most recently shutting down the Steelers' Antonio Brown when matched up against him. Pro Football Focus grades Gilmore as the No. 1 cornerback in the league entering Week 17. Gilmore deserves to be recognized as the Patriots' defensive MVP for his consistently strong performances over the balance of the season.
-- By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].