Friday, May 16, 2014

New England Patriots on Paper - White, Houston primed to make noise in backfield competition

James White is going to be a star.

The kid from the University of Wisconsin that the faithful in Madison have dubbed with the dubious nickname "Barry" - as in Sanders, for his quick feet and violent cutting ability - is far more than what the Badgers used him for, and if he becomes everything that the Patriots envision for him, he could be the most complete running back that has roamed Foxborough for at least a decade.

Both the University of Wisconsin and the Patriots are afforded the luxury of having the 5' 10", 200 pound White split carries both with the power backs that Wisconsin is noted for and that the Patriots' "By Committee" approach begs for - but in White, Patriots' coach Bill Belichick has drafted a back that can do everything the veteran backs can do - combined.

"I'd say he's a guy that has shown he has four-down value." Belichick offered in his post-draft presser. "He's been productive in the kicking game, he's been productive catching the ball. He has a high average per carry. He can run inside. He can run outside. He makes good space plays and he can get some tough yards."

Of course, what is Belichick supposed to say?

Obviously, many fans have taken issue with his selections in this year's draft, wondering why he opted for google search-worthy players and completely ignored the team's need for a tight end - but all one has to do is look at how the draft unfolded to understand that the Patriots' philosophy on both sides of the ball is evolving in the direction of being attacking entities.

Quite by circumstance and not necessarily by design, the Patriots turned to a power running game toward the end of last season when their passing game became incapacitated by injury - and the results were spectacular.

But the main cog in that late-season push, 250 pound LeGarrette Blount, bolted for the Pittsburgh Steelers in free agency leaving a gaping hole in New England's running game - what with Stevan Ridley's confidence in ball security shot and Shane Vereen's broken wrist not healing properly, while backup Brandon Bolden regressed in his third year and fullback (and former defensive end) James Develin not built for anything but a battering ram.

Compounding the issues is that even if any or all of these things work themselves out, all four are unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2014 season - and there's no guarantee that the Patriots have interest in retaining their services for what the market may bear for them, meaning that by this time next year, White could be the legitimate feature back in a markedly different looking New England offense.

But for White to be around this season and next, one of the incumbents is going to get their pink slip - and if the Patriots are truly planning on a power running game, there may be more than one.

Madness, all of it - but why would the Patriots spend fourth round draft capital on a running back if they felt that what they have already is the future of the franchise?  And furthermore, why would Belichick throw a decent amount of guaranteed money at Indiana running back Stephen Houston if he didn't think he had a better than average shot at making the team as an undrafted free agent?

In 2013, Belichick kept four running backs and a fullback on the 53 man roster - and, as it turns out, he needed all of them as injury kept Vereen on the shelf for half the season and slippery mitts kept Ridley on the sidelines for a few - and only the steady consistency of Blount kept the offense enough in balance for the offense to click...

...but with Blount being gone, the team needs a bigger body for that physical presence in short yardage situations and for their four-minute offense, and Houston fits that bill at 5' 11" and 230 pounds with the frame to get bigger - plus it seems that Houston is a pet project for running backs coach Ivan Fears, who actively recruited him and persuaded the kid to come to choose New England over other suitors.

“Coach Fears came in and worked me out after my pro day." Houston recanted with beat writers on Thursday. "We kept in touch and I felt the trust and the loyalty, felt comfortable talking to him. We hit it off right off the bat."

"I had other choices but I didn’t feel the same way I felt with Coach Fears.”

Now, this isn't to say that Belichick is going to immediately strip down his depth chart and install these two as his go-to guys, because he doesn't need to.  As with just about every other position on either side of the ball, the Patriots have the luxury to bring them along gradually - i.e. Jamie Collins last season - unless they just flat-out earn starting roles, but at this point that would be classified as a pleasant surprise.

“Competition brings out the best in everybody,” said White, “If you compete with the best, you’re going to eventually be the best. Compete with those guys, learn from one another, and I think it lets the offense be a lot more explosive having fresh guys on the field.”

White should know all about the camaraderie found in a committee approach that the Patriots have favored for going on a decade now, previously splitting carries with current Cincinnati Bengals sophomore back Giovani Bernard in high school, then early in his college career at Wisconsin sharing time with Denver Broncos' feature back Montee Ball and then highly-rated Melvin Gordon last season...

...logging 1,444 yards - a 6.5 yard per carry average - and scoring 13 times on the ground for the Badgers while snagging 39 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns through the air, all while splitting carries with Gordon.

“It was something I liked to do,"  White said of curling into the pass pattern out of the backfield. “Learning more routes, building my route tree, being able to run different things and create mismatches - Just knowing what everybody is doing on the field, so if you’re put in that position, you already know what to do."

And now he comes into a Patriots' program where he may find himself as a three-down option and perhaps the most complete back to play in New England for quite some time, and if Houston pans out as well the Patriots could ride that pair for the remainder of Brady's career and beyond.

Oh, did we mention White fumbles the ball only once every 377 carries?  That might be important as well...

Current running back depth chart:

Stevan Ridley
Shane Vereen
Brandon Bolden
James Develin
Jonas Gray
James White (R) 
Roy Finch (R)
Stephen Houston (R)

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