A pillar of the New England Patriots dynasty is calling it a career.
Veteran running back James White announced his retirement Thursday on social media, ending his career after eight seasons following an attempted comeback from hip surgery.
Here are four thoughts on White’s legacy in New England and how the Patriots can replace him this season:
1. It’s not hyperbolic to call White one of the most important players of the Bill Belichick era. He succeeded Kevin Faulk and Shane Vereen as Tom Brady’s third-down security blanket and, after essentially redshirting as a fourth-round rookie in 2014, became one of the league’s best pass-catching backs.
From 2015, when White became a regular in New England’s lineup, through the 2021 season, he led all NFL running backs in catches (376) and receiving touchdowns (25). He also ranked second in receiving yards with 3,255, 8 behind Alvin Kamara. And that was despite playing in only three games last season.
White also added another 59 grabs for 506 yards and three touchdowns across 12 postseason appearances, including his iconic, record-setting performance against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI (16 targets, 14 catches, 110 yards, three total touchdowns, one two-point conversion).
Brady deservedly took home Super Bowl MVP honors that year, but the Patriots don’t win that game without White. They scored 31 unanswered points after falling behind 28-3, and White personally provided 20 of them, including the game-winner in overtime.
In a statement Thursday, Belichick called White — a four-time team captain — “one of the most respected, best team players I have ever coached.” That fact has been obvious for years, with few Patriots receiving the type of universal praise from teammates that White did.
Like Faulk, White should have a spot in the Patriots Hall of Fame once he becomes eligible.
2. White’s announcement, while surely disappointing to Patriots fans, was not surprising.
The major hip surgery White underwent last fall left him bedridden for months, and a report from ESPN’s Mike Reiss shortly before the start of training camp indicated the 30-year-old was unable to walk without a limp.
White had been on the physically unable to perform list and was one of just two Patriots players (along with rookie offensive lineman Andrew Stueber) who did not participate in any of the team’s first 11 training camp practices.
3. With White now gone, just 10 players from the Patriots’ 2018 Super Bowl championship roster still are with the team: David Andrews, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Trent Brown, Joe Cardona, Lawrence Guy, Brian Hoyer, Jonathan Jones, Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater and Deatrich Wise.
Andrews, Cardona, Jones, McCourty and Slater are the only players left from the 2016 team that knocked off Atlanta.
4. So, how will the Patriots replace White, who was one of their top offensive performers last season before his injury?
At the moment, the leading candidate appears to be Ty Montgomery, a running back/receiver hybrid who came over from the New Orleans Saints in free agency.
Montgomery hasn’t offered much outside of the kicking game in recent years (less than 200 yards from scrimmage in each of the last three seasons), but he’s been repping with Mac Jones and the first-team offense since the start of training camp and has the skill set to fill a White-esque role on passing downs.
Rhamondre Stevenson, who enjoyed an impressive rookie season in 2021, also could take on some of White’s passing-game responsibilities. The hard-charging Oklahoma product slimmed down ahead of camp and worked to improve his route-running this offseason, including attending throwing sessions with Jones.
Stevenson averaged just over a catch per game last season (14 on 18 targets for 123 yards in 12 appearances) but has shown promise in that area. He ripped off a 41-yard catch-and-run in a win over Carolina and had some nifty receiving highlights during his time at OU.
And then there’s fourth-round rookie Pierre Strong. An undisclosed injury limited him for the first week of training camp — and caused him to fall “a little bit behind,” according to Belichick — but he’s back to full-go and seems to be climbing the depth chart. Strong is the fastest player in the Patriots’ backfield (4.37-second 40-yard dash at this year’s combine), and evaluators believe he has the pass-catching and pass-blocking skills to fill White’s role, even if most of his collegiate contributions at South Dakota State came as a ball-carrier.
The question is whether Strong is ready to take on those responsibilities right away or will need some seasoning. Given the Patriots’ history with first-year running backs and Strong’s delayed start to camp, the latter seems more likely. All of his team-period reps to date have come with backup quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Bailey Zappe, but we have seen the Patriots deploy him in multiple ways, lining him up out wide and in the slot in addition to his normal backfield alignments.
White’s retirement puts an even brighter spotlight on the fourth-round pick, who already was a player to watch in Thursday night’s preseason opener against the New York Giants.