The New England Patriots added more offensive support in the middle rounds, selecting Wisconsin running back James White in the fourth round. Running back looked like an area to target going into Saturday, and the Pats came away with a player who should form a four-headed committee with incumbent backs Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden.
White enjoyed a highly productive collegiate career in Madison. But how will he translate to the NFL, and is he a potential long-term lead back in the Patriots offense?
In terms of college numbers, few can match White. The ex-Badger rushed for 1,444 yards on an impressive 6.5 yards per carry in 2013. As part of a bruising Wisconsin offense, White comes as a relatively high-floor, projectable prospect who adds some diversity to the backfield:
Moreover, White's vision and patience makes him a solid fit for New England's zone-blocking scheme. White is decisive, and with some elusiveness, he could be a good change-of-pace from the power running styles of Ridley and Bolden.
Perhaps most importantly, White takes care of the ball. He fumbled just twice in 754 career touches over four years. When Ridley's chronic fumbilitis nearly derailed the Pats' running game in 2013, LeGarrette Blount's sure-handed productivity saved the ground game. White is a different runner from Blount, but it's nice to have bankable production in the short half of the running back platoon.
Moreover, the Pats did not have a suitable passing-down replacement when Vereen broke his wrist last season. White, who had a career-high 39 receptions last year and is polished in pass protection, provides them valuable insurance in that regard.
White is not really a suitable replacement in the event that Ridley walks after 2014 as he does not have the same durability, but he could give the Pats extra leverage in negotiations with Vereen. Vereen has had issues staying healthy throughout his career, so the Pats could easily turn to White if the latter option proves too brittle to grant a contract extension.
As impressive as those college numbers are, Wisconsin is notorious for inflating running backs' production. White does have a well-rounded skill set, but he is not the superstar that his production would suggest.
Moreover, White (5'9", 204 lbs) is undersized and seems unlikely to ever bear more than 10 to 15 touches per game without diminishing returns. His strength is barely adequate, which puts lots of pressure on the offensive line to execute their assignments with little room for error.
White also has extremely short arms (29.25") and tiny hands (8.25"), per NFL.com. Therefore, despite his receiving productivity last season, he may not have the physical tools to turn into a capable NFL receiver. For that reason, White is not necessarily a perfect replacement for Vereen.
In addition, the Patriots did not appear to get good value for White in the fourth round. The NFL.com scouting report linked in the paragraph above projected White as a seventh-rounder or priority free agent. New England is famously stubborn with its boards, which often vastly differ from the public's, but White looks like a player it could have selected with one of its three sixth-rounders:
White's versatility is nice, but in a league where complementary committees are en vogue, it is almost better to have one excellent skill than several above-average ones. White is surely a nice piece to have, but he currently does not look like a long-term upgrade over either Ridley or Vereen if one of those two walks in free agency.
Running back was a need headed into the draft, with no backs under contract following the 2014 season. While the Pats missed out on some higher upside backs like Florida State's Devonta Freeman and Boston College's Andre Williams, White is not a poor consolation prize.
One thought: With no tight ends or receivers drafted thus far, it appears the Patriots will need to manufacture some formational creativity. Vereen has had success splitting out wide in his career; perhaps New England plays both White and Vereen on passing downs as part of their "21" regular or "20" Houston personnel?
Regardless, White provides some nice versatility and depth for the backfield. As the Patriots move away from a spread- and passing-oriented offense toward more balance and power concepts, White looks like a piece who could fit well.
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