How James White Can (And Can’t) Replace Dion Lewis In Patriots’ Offense

New England Patriots fans must resign themselves to an immediate future without their most versatile and explosive running back.

Dion Lewis reportedly needs a second surgery on his left knee, and while it’s certainly not a worst-case scenario, his absence absolutely will negatively affect the Patriots’ offense.

Lewis is dangerous on handoffs, using a combination of burst and quickness to make defenders miss in close quarters. He’s perhaps even better as a receiver, with the versatility to catch passes out of the backfield, in the slot and outside. He uses his agility to make defenders miss in space.

Perhaps most importantly, Lewis gives the Patriots a degree of unpredictability. When he’s on the field, the Patriots can run the ball just as well as they can pass. No matter where he lines up, the defense has to take notice.

James White will be the primary beneficiary of Lewis’ snaps, barring a trade. Lewis was an all-around back for the Patriots, but he was considered a sub back because of his size and receiving ability. White will take over on third downs and obvious passing situations, while LeGarrette Blount will be used on early downs.

White has had a strong preseason, but he has yet to prove he can consistently make defenders miss — either using his quickness or power — while carrying the ball.

The Patriots shouldn’t see a major drop-off between the players through the air, however. Lewis averaged 10.8 yards per catch last season, hauling in 36 passes for 388 yards with two touchdowns, while White averaged 10.3 yards per reception, catching 40 balls for 410 yards with four scores.

There will be a slight decline, however, because when White is on the field, the opposing defense doesn’t have to respect the run.

Here are White’s longest runs of the 2015 season:

White had solid holes, strong blocking and used his vision to pick up 8 yards on both carries. But neither would go in any starting running back’s highlight reel.

Compare that to what Lewis can bring in the ground game.

Lewis’ ability to burst through a hole, stop on a dime and change directions comes with his overall athleticism. He ran a 4.47-second 40-yard dash with a 6.90-second 3-cone drill and a 4.18-second short shuttle while coming out of Pitt. White, on the other hand, ran a 4.57-second 40-yard dash with a 7.05-second 3-cone and a 4.20-second short shuttle.

White has shown some improved quickness, vision and power in the preseason, however. So perhaps the running back also will show development during the regular season.

As usual, however, his best play has come through the air this summer. Both of these receptions have come out of the backfield, but he also has the versatility to line up out wide or in the slot.

White isn’t the fastest, most powerful or quickest running back, but he has a solid pair of hands and has shown the ability to make defenders miss in open space. The Patriots won’t be as versatile with White on the field, but they also weren’t overly versatile in 2014, when they won the Super Bowl with Blount and Shane Vereen in the backfield.

Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images

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