The Patriots have 22 players set to hit unrestricted free agency when the NFL league year opens March 17. As that date approaches, we’re taking a closer look at New England’s free agents. Next up: running back James White
2020 stats: 49 catches on 62 targets, 375 yards, one touchdown; 35 carries, 121 yards, two touchdowns (14 games)
Likelihood of return: Moderate
Analysis: While it’s difficult to picture James White in a different uniform, there’s a real possibility the Super Bowl LI hero has played his final snap as a Patriot.
White is set to hit free agency for the first time in his seven-year NFL career, and he’s coming off a 2020 season that was — by almost any metric — his least productive since his rookie year in 2014, when he appeared in just three games.
The veteran pass-catching back tallied full-season career lows in receiving yards, yards per game (26.8), yards per reception (7.7) and receiving touchdowns. He also registered his fewest rushing yards (121) since 2015 and managed just three total touchdowns, down from six in 2019 and 12 in 2018.
White’s yards-from-scrimmage total also dropped precipitously, from 1,176 in 2018 and 908 in 2019 to 496 in 2020. And this all happened while New England was extremely lean on talent at wide receiver and tight end.
The exact reason for White’s regression is difficult to decipher, and it must be noted that he dealt with unspeakable tragedy off the field this season, losing his father in a car crash that left his mother seriously injured. White shared a steady stream of positive updates on his mother’s condition as the season progressed, but the NFL’s COVID-19 restrictions limited his ability to visit her and the rest of his family in their native South Florida.
White still ranked in the top 10 among running backs in catches (T-ninth) and receiving yards (eighth) despite missing two games.
A team captain in each of the last three seasons, White is beloved in the Patriots’ locker room, but it remains unclear how aggressively New England will push to re-sign him this offseason. If he hits the market, keep an eye on Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a potential suitor.
The one weapon missing from the Bucs’ Super Bowl-winning offense this past season was a consistent third-down back, and White’s Florida ties and strong connection with Brady could make Tampa a desirable destination for the 29-year-old. Brian Flores’ Miami Dolphins would be another sensible match.
If White does leave, look for the Patriots to add a veteran back with pass-catching chops in free agency. (One potential option: Duke Johnson, who was cut by the Houston Texans last week.) The versatile Rex Burkhead also is an impending free agent — and might not be ready for the start of the season after suffering a major knee injury in November — and lead backs Damien Harris and Sony Michel haven’t provided much receiving production to date.
J.J. Taylor also could take on a larger role in White’s absence after showing promise as an undrafted rookie.
More Patriots free agent profiles: Joe Thuney