New England Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears is expecting a resurgent 2021 season from James White.
Fears chalked up White’s uncharacteristically quiet 2020 campaign — his 49 catches and 3.5 yards-per-carry average were his lowest marks since 2015 — to the offensive structure around him. He believes the Patriots’ change at quarterback from Cam Newton to Mac Jones will benefit the veteran pass-catching back.
“I never thought he dropped off,” Fears said Tuesday in a video conference. “I think last year, we couldn’t take advantage of him. New scheme. Young. The way we were doing things. New quarterback. This guy (Jones) has the chance to take advantage of James. It’ll be a good thing for James. Utilize the things that he does well.”
The White-Jones connection got off to a promising start Sunday. The rookie QB went 6-for-7 for 49 yards when targeting White during New England’s 17-16 loss to the Miami Dolphins, including a beautiful over-the-shoulder ball that went for 26 on third-and-11.
White caught more than four passes in just one of his final 11 games last season.
“He blocked well, he ran the ball as hard as he could, took a hell of a lot of hits in the game, and he made some plays in the passing game,” Fears said. “That’s James White. He looks good. He’s had a great camp, and it showed in the first game.”
White also held up well in pass protection while fellow Patriots backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson struggled in that area. Among the 63 NFL backs with at least 25 pass-blocking snaps last season, White’s blocking grade on Pro Football Focus ranked 62nd.
That was a stunning regression for a player who had been one of the league’s better pass-blockers. White, who took time away from the Patriots last September after his father was killed and his mother was seriously injured in a car crash, said last week that 2020 “definitely wasn’t my best year in any aspect … especially in blitz pickup.”
Fears was encouraged by White’s work as a blocker against Miami.
“I thought he started off very well,” Fears said. “He didn’t really miss any. He was definitely on top of his game as far as that goes. He was there when he needed to be there. He made his blocks. That’s the challenge that James — people are trying to come after him because they think he’s 200 pounds or whatever he is. They don’t think of him as a big back. They think they can — these 330-pound linebackers can run through him.
“James is also a tough guy. He can be pretty tough in there and that’s what he’s got to do for us. He’s got to do it consistently, and he knows it. People will start coming after him.”