By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
There were only 16 running backs in the NFL last season who were age 29 or older. Of those 16, only 11 played 10 or more games. The running back position is a young man’s game – guys like Frank Gore are the exception, not the rule.
The Patriots have a tendency to move on from even cornerstone players before they get over the hill. Their two free agent running backs have been staples of the offense over the last few years, but both are starting to age out of the average peak for their positions.
James White turns 29 on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Rex Burkhead will be 31 by the time training camp begins next summer. With both scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in March, will the Patriots move on from their two most consistent running backs?
White caught the second-most passes of any Patriot in 2020, despite missing two games. It was the third season in a row ‘Sweet Feet’ finished first or second on the team in catches.
Still, his yards per catch were down, and he didn’t have the same burst after the catch we’ve seen in recent years. White catching the ball in the flat on a 3rd & 5, one-on-one with a linebacker, used to be an automatic first down. That wasn’t the case this year, as he failed to break that tackle or evade that defender as much as he characteristically had in the past.
That’s not meant to be a knock on White as a player. It’s just reality. He’s at an age where most players at his position are usually already out of the league. On top of that, the offense around him suffered as a whole. It was a tough year.
But football is a ‘what have you done for me lately’ sport. Was White’s 2020 enough to indicate to them they need to move on? His role in the offense in a crucial one, and the team can’t risk a significant drop off in production.
Likely not. However, they should begin thinking about the next man up. Just like they did bringing in White at the end of Shane Vereen’s tenure, getting White’s replacement in the building while he is still in Foxborough has a number of advantages. White is still a leader and locker room presence, and he has plenty of experience to help the next guy grow as a player.
Plus, if the Patriots plan to replace White with a draft pick, it will allow them to maintain the practice of ‘redshirting’ rookie running backs. Of course, they could also sign a free agent, or turn to 2020 UDFA J.J. Taylor. They could also bring in multiple candidates to hedge their bets.
Whatever the solution, it will help to still have White around as they transition. That likely would mean a one-year deal for the Wisconsin product. The Patriots have the cap space to make a competitive offer if that’s the case.
If a team wants to give White three or more years though, it would be difficult for the Patriots to justify matching the deal. Longer-term financial security would be hard for a 29-year-old running back to turn down, which could make things interesting. A one, maybe two-year deal for White is the best approach for the Patriots, even if it’s of moderate value.
If the Patriots did somehow lose White, it would give them more reason to consider bringing back Rex Burkhead. However, Burkhead will be 31, and is coming off of a serious knee injury – rumored to be a torn ACL. He presents a bigger risk than White for a significant drop off in production.
The flip side of that is, of course, Burkhead won’t have as much interest on the open market. A one-year, incentive-heavy contract to see what he looks like in training camp is what the Patriots should be looking at. If another team wants to give Burkhead guaranteed money, let them take the risk.
Both White and Burkhead are valued individuals in the Patriots locker room, strong voices, and have been dependable players over the last half-decade. Either would add value to the team in 2021. But for a team looking to get younger and more explosive on offense, they’re on the outside looking in when it comes to the big picture.
Expect the Patriots to take a wait-and-see approach with these guys like they do with a lot of their older, long-tenured veterans. Unless they’re willing to take strongly team-friendly deals (which shouldn’t be ruled out), White and Burkhead likely won’t sign in the first wave of free agency. Instead, it will probably be that same old story of the Patriots giving an offer, letting the player see if they can top it elsewhere, and if not bringing them back.
Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.