Tom Brady will be back on the Gillette Stadium game field this Sunday night. One of his old favorite targets will not be.
James White, the New England Patriots’ top pass-catching back during the final half-decade of the Brady era, suffered a hip subluxation during last Sunday’s loss to the New Orleans Saints. He had to be carted to the locker room and will be “out indefinitely,” according to a report Monday.
Losing White — who’d also become a valuable resource for New England’s new quarterback, Mac Jones — leaves a massive hole in the Patriots’ backfield. It’s not an exaggeration to call him one of the team’s most important offensive players.
“That?s hard,” running backs coach Ivan Fears said Tuesday in a video conference. “No doubt about it. But you’re always prepping for situations like this where you might be missing a key guy for a time period. We didn’t expect it for the whole time period, but if it turns out that way, that’s the way it turns out. But the guys we got have all been prepping to replace James if need be, so it’s not like we?re going cold turkey. We’re not going cold turkey.”
Despite their preparation, the Patriots could have a difficult time replacing White’s talents in the passing game, both as a receiver and as a blocker. He led all Patriots players in catches and receiving yards entering Week 3 and also had been the team’s top pass protector, bouncing back from a lackluster 2020 season in both areas.
“He’s an outstanding route-runner, playmaker in the passing game, very productive,” Fears said. “And James is also extremely smart, very aware, consistent in his blitz pickup as far as knowing who to go to, who to pick up, read the defenses. I mean, his experience level in that stuff is through the roof. So, we’re going to have to get some guys brought up to speed pretty fast to sort of pick up what he was going for us in that role.”
The obvious question, then, is who fills that void. Brandon Bolden took over most of White’s snaps in Sunday’s game, but he primarily plays on special teams and has limited offensive upside. Ideally, either rookie Rhamondre Stevenson or second-year pro J.J. Taylor — or a combination of the two — would slide into White’s role, with Damien Harris handling lead back duties. (The Patriots traded Sony Michel to the Los Angeles Rams late in the preseason, a deal they might now regret.)
Can those youngsters handle that responsibility? TBD.
Neither has seen significant playing time this season. Taylor has logged a total of 15 offensive snaps across two games (with one healthy scratch) and has 8 yards from scrimmage on five touches. Stevenson touched the ball twice on five snaps in the opener, then sat out back-to-back games as a healthy scratch after losing a fumble and blowing a blitz pickup during his brief Week 1 cameo.
Both were standout performers during the preseason, but that production came against second- and third-string defenders.
On Taylor, Fears said the 2020 undrafted free agent will be “a consideration” as the Patriots scramble to replace White.
“There’s no doubt about it,” the coach said. “J.J.’s a very talented guy. We like what he?s been doing. He’s had an awful good preseason up to this point, and what he’s been about to do in game, so we’re going to find out more. With James not in there, we’ll actually see what he can do more of. Everybody’s going to have to have a piece of the role, and step their game up a little bit. I think J.J.’s one of the guys we have to take a look at.”
Fears said Stevenson, a fourth-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, is “most definitely” improving after his awful debut.
“He has made big improvements on the stuff we asked him to make improvements on, and we’re kind of happy with him,” Fears said. “So we’re kind of excited to see if he can pick up a new role here. Maybe he can pick up some of the stuff James was doing. We’ll throw it at him this week and see what sticks at practice. See what he can handle.”
Stevenson kicked off his Patriots career by failing the team’s conditioning test, setting him back at the outset of training camp. Fears said the Oklahoma product needed to learn “the things he had to do to get ready to be a professional football player,” and that he’s encouraged by Stevenson’s progress.
At 6 feet, 227 pounds, Stevenson is much larger than White, but he was involved in the passing game in college, catching 18 passes for 211 yards in six games last season.
“He’s going to be a hell of a football player in this league,” Fears said. “… I think he’s going to be great in his next appearance. I think the kid is going to be really good, I do. He’s taken everything everybody’s told him. I’m talking about his teammates, the other backs, coaches. He’s taken it to heart. I kind of like it. I really like it. So I think the kid is going to come out and do well when he gets his next shot.”
Taylor and Stevenson both are likely to be active Sunday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers unless the Patriots add an additional running back in the coming days. They hosted a handful for free agent workouts Tuesday, bringing in Ryquell Armstead, Dontrell Hilliard, Ito Smith and Artavis Pierce.
Marlon Mack, on the outs in Indianapolis, could be a trade target but might not have the requisite pass-blocking chops. New England also could look to reacquire the versatile Rex Burkhead, who isn’t getting much run a crowded Houston Texans backfield.
“The young guys — everybody is going to get some work at it,” Fears said. “They will all share in replacing James White’s duties.”