By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots value running backs as pass catchers more than just about any other team in the NFL. The ‘third down’ or ‘pass catching’ back has been a staple role for the Patriots in the Bill Belichick era.
Since 2015, that job has belonged mainly James White. White is one of, if not the best back to ever hold that role for the Patriots, and is constantly ranked as one of the best pass-catching backs in the league. There only seems to be one player unanimously ahead of him, All-Pro Christian McCaffrey.
Over the last five seasons, White (315) and McCaffrey (305) are the only two backs to catch over 300 passes. They’re also two of three backs to have over 2,500 yards receiving (White 2,786, McCaffrey 2,523), and top two in touchdowns (White 24, McCaffrey 15).
Yes, McCaffrey put up those numbers in half the time White did (the Stanford product was drafted in 2017), but White was in an offense notorious for spreading the ball in the passing game as much as possible under Tom Brady. He was also competing for targets with the likes of Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. Meanwhile, McCaffrey was the sole focal point of an offense that lacked weapons and was led by Cam Newton, who’s skillset is tailored to involving the running back on passing plays.
Now, White will likely get to try his hand with Newton, who seems to be the only person left in New England to not see himself as the Patriots starting quarterback. Reports out of training camp have indicated that the new Patriots offense could have elements of what Newton and McCaffrey did in Carolina in 2018. If that is the case, there is no bigger winner than White.
In 2018, Newton’s last fully-healthy season, McCaffrey posted 107 catches (a then-record he broke himself in 2019), 867 yards, and 6 touchdowns. Using White’s 2018 numbers and league averages as a base, his projected output in such an offense would come out to 97 catches, 809 yards, and 6.5 touchdowns. Those catches and yards would both be career-highs for the 28-year-old.
It’s not just White who could benefit from having Newton under center either. The Patriots have built themselves a deep unit of backs who have shown they can contribute in the passing game. White, Rex Burkhead, and Lamar Miller (currently on PUP) have all had success catching the ball at the NFL level, while second-year back Damien Harris showed sparks as a receiver in his time at Alabama.
“Burkie [Burkhead] and J-White [James White], man, those guys have been extremely good,” Newton said to reporters on Wednesday. “Outside of me and Damien [Harris] not having the best collegiate eyesight to eyesight [Auburn/Alabama], he’s been good, too.”
Newton added that the professionalism of the group has stood out to him. “Those guys are going to show up day in and day out in practice,” he said. “I think that’s the thing that I look forward to, and with knowing that, it kind of puts the onus back on you to make sure that you’re doing your job, and everything else will fall in place.”
Having spent two of the last three seasons working with a guy who is on a clear first-ballot Hall of Fame trajectory in McCaffrey, it’s encouraging to see Newton feel’s as though he’s being pushed by the group of backs he has around him now. And while his chemistry with the wide receivers has been a common talking point throughout camp, his chemistry with the running backs group should not be overlooked.
Obviously there are outside factors such as health and, well, playing a full season in the time of COVID-19. That being said, if all goes according to plan, be ready for a big PPR year from James White and the Patriots running backs in 2020.